Combating a global scourge

Lebanon needs broad, coordinated action to end child labor, argues Nabil Watfa

Greg Demarque | Executive
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Child labor afflicts over 160 million children worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) — making it one of the most pressing human rights issues globally. Fortunately, the response of the international community to the phenomenon has been immense. The 96 year old ILO first addressed the problem with the adoption of the Minimum Age (Industry) Convention (No. 5) in 1919. This was followed by the adoption of the Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) in 1973; the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998; and the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No. 182) in 1999. In 1989, the United Nations also adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a global standard based on four main principles: nondiscrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. Yet there is still much work to do.

What is child labor?

Children engage in different types of work. If the work includes activities such as helping parents or assisting a family business, without interfering with the child’s schooling or undermining the child’s development, it should not be classified as child labor. On the contrary, engagement in such activities will contribute to the child’s development and the welfare of the family, and will provide the child with the skills and experience that are required to become a productive member of society.

However, if the work deprives children of their childhood, potential or right to dignity, or if it is harmful to their health, then it is deemed child labor. Examples of such work include activities which specifically interfere with school attendance, lead to dropping out of school and involve arduous, heavy work with long working hours. The severity and nature of child labor varies depending on the child’s age, type of work and the circumstances under which it is carried out. If child labor jeopardizes the physical, mental or social wellbeing of the child, it is referred to as ‘hazardous work.’ The priority for the international community is to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

The worst forms of child labor (WFCL), as addressed by the ILO Convention on the subject, refer to:

• All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, and forced and compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

• The use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

• The use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs and;

• Work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Globally, the response to child labor started with the ratification of the 1999 ILO Convention (No. 182) by 179 member states. This means that, at present, more than three out of four children live in countries that have ratified it. Efforts have concentrated on a number of actions, including prevention, protection, legislation, recovery and social integration of millions of children. The response was directed at different types of child labor, including hazardous work in areas such as agriculture, small scale mining, child domestic labor, child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, forced and bonded labor, and the engagement of children in armed conflict and illicit activities.

Worldwide trends show positive signs in tackling the problem. ILO statistics indicate that the number of child laborers (5–17 years old) worldwide dropped from 246 million in 2000, to 218 million in 2008 (an 11 percent decline); and to 168 million in 2012 (a 35 percent decline). Meanwhile, the number of children involved in hazardous labor dropped from 171 million in 2000 to 85 million in 2012 (a 50 percent decline). The statistics also show that Asia and the Pacific still maintains the largest number of child laborers (78 million, or 9.3 percent of the child population); Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of child labor (59 million, or 21 percent of the child population); Latin America and the Caribbean has 13 million or 8.8 percent of the child population; and the Middle East and North Africa is home to 9.2 million child laborers or 8.4 percent of the child population.

Sector wise, the largest number of child laborers work in the agricultural sector (98 million, or 58 percent of the world’s child laborer population). The service sector (wholesale and retail trade; restaurants and hotels; transport, storage and communications; finance, real estate and business services; and community as well as social personal services) exploits 54 million; while industry (mining, quarrying, manufacturing, construction and public utilities) exploits 12 million.

[pullquote]Prior to March 2011, the child labor population in Lebanon was estimated at 100,000[/pullquote]

The situation in Lebanon

Among the four different categories of the WFCL listed above, hazardous child labor is more predominant in Lebanon. Prior to March 2011, which marks the start of the Syrian crisis, the child labor population in Lebanon was estimated at 100,000. Earlier surveys conducted in selected southern villages and in Mount Lebanon and Beirut provinces identified child labor in agriculture and construction, two of the most hazardous sectors, and sweat shops, as well as the street children in the urban areas of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud, Antelias and Jounieh. The assessments showed that 16 percent of the labor force in small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) were children aged 9–18, 5 percent of whom were girls. Child laborers are exposed to a number of hazards, including chemicals, heavy mechanical machinery and psychosocial stress. The effects on the health of working children are not only acute, but may be chronic, manifesting in long term poisoning, cancer and musculoskeletal and mental disorders. Field experience has also revealed that a growing number of girls were victims of sexual exploitation, including abuse in the workplace. Boys and girls were also engaged in the use and distribution of illicit drugs. Earlier studies conducted in the South Lebanon province revealed that children were sexually active at an early age, with limited knowledge about prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The phenomenon is exacerbated by the continued massive influx of Syrian refugee children, who created significant human rights and economic challenges for host communities, and for the refugee legal framework in Lebanon.

In 2013, a study was sponsored by the ILO, UNICEF, Save the Children International and the Ministry of Labor (MOL) for the purpose of assessing the number and conditions of children living and working on the streets. The study, entitled “Children living and working on the streets in Lebanon: Profile and magnitude,” was conducted in 18 districts across Lebanon, covering a total of 1,510 street based children (SBC). The results identified the causes for the high numbers of SBC as social exclusion, vulnerability of households, the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, organized crime and exploitation of children. SBC were more prominent in begging (43 percent) and street peddling (37 percent), and more prevalent in urban areas. The study covered a wide range of aspects that are too detailed to include here.

Fortunately, Lebanon reaffirmed its commitment to combat child labor through the ratification of the relevant international conventions and the issuance in 2012 of ministerial Decree 8987, which prohibits the employment of persons under the age of 18 in hazardous jobs. In November 2013, Lebanon pledged to eliminate the WFCL by 2016. This will depend on the proper application of the national action plan. However, given the problem’s complexity, the MOL’s efforts need to be supported in a coordinated fashion with other government ministries such as social affairs, public health, education and higher education, the interior, municipalities, as well as UN agencies.

What needs to happen

Action aimed at the elimination of child labor must address a number of target groups and partners, especially the direct beneficiaries — namely the vulnerable children — and the indirect beneficiaries, including parents, SMEs, schools and community leaders. This is not to mention direct recipients, including the MOL’s Child Labor Unit (CLU) and labor inspectors, the National Steering Committee (NSC), social work NGOs, employers and workers organizations, and all governmental agencies involved in combating child labor. Other collaborating partners include governors, law enforcement officers, municipalities and UN organizations.

At the field level, an updated situation analysis is needed to identify gaps in child labor relevant programs and policies in the different provinces across Lebanon. A strong national steering committee needs to be involved in the collection, analysis and dissemination of data on child labor, in order to support the planning of policies and services. The development and implementation of a Child Labor Monitoring System has also been effective in reducing the impact of risk factors and in promoting positive and protective services. Public awareness campaigns to promote the understanding of child labor are also essential as supporting services. The same goes for the provision of training and technical advisory services for the direct recipients, indirect beneficiaries and the collaborating partners referred to above.

[pullquote]Given the direct correlation between incidences of school dropout and child labor, resources must be directed at efforts to keep all children in school[/pullquote]

Given the direct correlation between incidences of school dropout and child labor, resources must be directed at efforts to keep all children in school, especially those between the ages of 6 and 15. This necessitates a number of interventions, including the provision of livelihood services such as an assessment of obstacles that prevent children from attending school, and the provision of financial support and other incentives to help households offset income currently being earned by children. This must be accompanied by the implementation of safe schools and smart student programs to improve school enrollment, retention and destigmatization of working children.

Such school and student focused programs would need to include at least four main elements. First, teachers should be trained to assess school readiness for children in primary and secondary education. Through this, teachers will become qualified to diagnose the particular educational requirements of the students, identify criteria for remedial classes, develop a diagnostic tool for students’ enrollment in remedial classes, design and deliver remedial competency based curricula and design training tools for monitoring student progress.

Second, teachers should also be trained to conduct remedial classes targeting students who have sporadic school participation or are at risk of dropping out. This will qualify teachers to provide incentives such as back to school kits and lunch programs in order to encourage attendance and retention in schools; conduct awareness raising activities at national and local levels, beginning with a knowledge, attitude and practice study to assess youth refugee perception towards displacement and identify psychological status; design and modify existing tools to monitor students’ progress; and aim to alleviate poverty by promoting income generating activities for families with children.

Third, safe child and youth friendly schools must be created to promote social cohesion and accommodate the learning needs of all children. This should include anti-bullying campaigns, tutoring, cultural activities, team sports and group therapy. Additionally, training in, and the implementation of, the National Strategy on Violence Against Children will be needed.

Finally, targeted interventions should be implemented through surveys and site inspections designed to identify and withdraw children who are under 14 from forced labor environments and conduct rapid assessments on the impact to the family; identify and withdraw children who are above 14 from the WFCL and conduct rapid assessments on the impact to the family; and improve school enrollment, performance and retention through mentoring, tutoring and financial incentives. Preventing at-risk children from becoming victims of forced labor by helping families through coordination with mayors, labor unions and development service centers must also be employed. If such coordinated action is taken, Lebanon will be able to do its part to combat the global scourge of child labor — and provide the next generation with a far brighter future.