Child labour still rampant

From a distance, the children jumping up and down the colourful hills of trash in Jedaydet Artous, a suburb of Syria's capital, Damascus, look like ghosts. At closer range, however, it turns out they are rummaging through the litter in search of any valuables they can sell to support their families.

"I don't like this job," said 10-year old Razan al-Haj Ali, who was sifting through the rubbish with her brother Ayman, 14. "But I must work to eat and help my parents."

For most of the day, they search for plastic cans and scrap metals which they later take to downtown Damascus to sell for 5 Syrian pounds (US 10 cents) per one kilo. Their hope, daily, is to come back home - four kilometres from the dump - with at least one US dollar to buy dinner.

Razan and Ayham are among millions of children whose childhood has been stolen mostly by poverty and illiteracy. To survive, they all have to do some work - ranging from rummaging through garbage dumps to more manual jobs.

For example, Khaled al-Asaad, 12, and his brother Asaad, 9, work at al-Hal market in downtown Damascus, where they help move boxes of vegetables and fruit. In return, they come back home with some vegetables and fruits which they, in most cases, pick up from the ground.

Farid al-Issa, 14, meanwhile, must juggle work with school. Waking up early each morning, he first has to go with his parents and sister to a nearby farm to dry tobacco leaves for about 2-1/2 hours. Then he leaves for school. "If I do not wake up at that time," he said. "I will not go to school."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), many Syrian children are involved in child labour. Statistics provided by UNICEF show that between 1999-2003, some 8 percent of all Syrian children were involved - with boys slightly more than girls.

Many of these work through their families especially in rural areas and on agricultural activities, according to Mamadou Kiari Liman-Tinguiri, UNICEF representative in Syria.

A 2005 study done by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in conjunction with UNICEF said the poverty situation in Syria had been worsened by a general downward economic trend, pushing more children to enter the labour market. Male children, it added, were more likely to work than the females.

It, however, noted that many of the child labourers also went regularly to school. Primary education is compulsory in Syria and according to various surveys, net enrolment rates are high - up to 98 and 99 per cent for girls and boys respectively. Progress has been uneven, however, and geographic disparities persist.

According to Talal Mustafa, a professor of sociology at Damascus University, "nobody talks about child labor in the countryside because it's done under the pretext of helping the family... and is socially accepted".

He added: "This steadily harms their health, personality and education."


For the families and the children, the work they do is seen as profitable.

Imad Mohammad, 15, a blacksmith, boasted of earning in one day more than what his uncle, a school teacher, earns in a month. "I had preferred to quit school three years ago because the educated do not find work," he said.

Ali, who only gave one name and does not know how old is except that his comrades are now at in the second elementary grade, spends all the day on al-Koussour street selling lottery tickets, which his brother gives him daily. He said his brother comes at midnight to take him back home, along with other neighboring children, who sit on the road selling anything from chewing gum to cigarettes and polishing shoes.

"When I feel hungry, I ask any by-passer to buy a sandwich for me," he said.

In the Housh Place area in Damascus' suburbs, dozens of children work pouring melted aluminum in hot ovens. "My hands always tremble when I carry the molten liquid," Mouneir Assaf, 16, said. "There is an obsession and a haunted feeling that I will fall down one day and be burned by this liquid. I am always afraid and do not like this job. But I have no alternative."

Issa Maldaoun, the Syrian deputy minister of social affairs and labor, said the children are actually exploited because some employers find them cheaper and more docile.

Mustafa, echoes the minister's opinion, adding that the children are also often abused.

"The children might be subject to physical violence by their employers, or they might be sexually abused during their work at houses," he said. "They might get involved into bad habits like drugs and smoking."


To try and contain the problem, the Syrian government in 2001 prohibited children from working in heavy industry unless they were aged 15 and above. This was based on earlier law of 1959 which actually prohibits employment of children under 15.

Despite the law, however, a lot of children work far from the government's surveillance, in dangerous circumstances and subject to different forms of abuse, experts say.

Maldaoun said that there is no official statistics about child labor below 10, for example. Warning that a delay in studying this matter meant a delay in resolving the phenomenon, he said government was trying to address it through various programmes.

"There are [now] programmes to encourage families not to force their children to work, including giving financial aid to the father to enable him to send his children to school," he added.

The programmes include one by the Syrian planning authority, titled the "Social Welfare Fund" that plans to distribute financial aid to the poorest families. It also plans to establish childcare centers during summer vacations.

The Syrian Body for Family Affairs has also drawn up a national plan to protect children from violence and abuse. Its head, Mouna Ghanem, explained that because 50 percent of the population is below 18, the government was working hard to develop programmes targeting young people.

According to UNICEF, child labour refers to all children below 12 years of age working in any economic activities, those aged 12 to 14 years engaged in harmful work, and all children engaged in the worst forms of work. The worst forms involve children being enslaved, forcibly recruited, prostituted, trafficked, forced into illegal activities and exposed to hazardous work.

Globally, an estimated 246 million children are engaged in child labour. Of those, almost three-quarters work in hazardous situations or conditions, such in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or working with dangerous machinery.