Child Labor in Yeme and Globalization of the Economy [Archives:2001/44/Reportage]
Samira Ali BinDaair
Poverty and Child Labor
The problem of child labor in Yemen has been increasing, along with poverty, over recent years. Accurate statistics are not available on the magnitude of the problem, and the 1994 Census underestimated the figure of working children at 232,000. The same source states that in recent years, at least 35 percent of the workforce are aged 10 and above, and that the number of children between 0 and 14 is stated to be around 8 million. The workforce survey undertaken by the CSO in 2000 estimated that children form 9 percent of the total workforce. The total number of working children in the 6-14 age group is 326,608, amongst whom 167,774 are females. This implies a high dependency ratio with almost half the population being children, also implying a high demand for education and health care. However, with the economic reform package and the introduction of user fees in education and cost recovery in health, the socio-economic indicators for Yemen have taken a downward spiral in the last decade.
Although some improvements have been made at the macroeconomic level as a result of financial restructuring, the microeconomic level reveals that poverty has become more serious as people’s wages and real income have decreased in line with increasing unemployment and inflation. According to the Poverty and Information Monitoring System of the UNDP, the richest 10 percent get 34 percent of national income and spend 25.5 percent of all expenditures, while the poorest 10 percent of households spend a mere 3.5 percent. Thus, child labor is rampant as families face huge difficulties in meeting their most basic requirements, like food and shelter. Yemen is also classified as a Food Deficit country and imports over 75 percent of its main staple, wheat. It is also estimated that 2.7 million people are below the food poverty line (WFP) because of low purchasing power, but the figures are suspected to be much higher than stated. Population growth (annual growth rate of 3.5 percent) is another factor that presents many challenges to a country classified as an LDC (Less Developed Countries), rated 148th among 174 countries in terms of the Human Development Index.
One third of the population is involved in agriculture, whereas agriculture represents only a small contribution to the Gross National Product. Only 3.8 percent of the workforce is engaged in the industry sector, while 16 percent are found in the public sector and commerce. As the returns from agriculture are low and that most people depend on rain-fed agriculture, people from the countryside migrate massively to the urban areas. This exacerbates the situation in the rural areas, which become further neglected creating problems of desertification which in turn leads to the destruction of arable land from which farmers could have made a living. Those who immigrate to the cities and become displaced get into a vicious cycle of poverty in urban towns and are unable to return home, creating fertile ground for child labor. Poverty is cited to be a major factor for child labor as families come to depend more and more on their children’s incomes especially in female headed households or when the father earns a low income or is unemployed.
The Social Safety Net
In the Second Five Year Development Plan of 2001-2005, the sector reform programs adopted the food security strategy with poverty eradication as a development objective (UNDP), with a national plan of action along with the poverty reduction strategy established by the IMF and World Bank. Other initiatives include the strengthening of the existing safety nets and the maximization of agricultural productivity to ensure long-term sustainability. However, the focus is more directed to draw up policies and technical assistance with less resources to implement those policies. So far, very little evidence exists in measuring the impact of these poverty alleviation programs on the poor.
The productive sectors have not adequately been accounted for in these policies and investment in Yemen faces several obstacles. The Civil Service Reforms have yet to be implemented in order to eliminate the bureaucracy and red tape that stand in the way of investment. Returns from investment with equitable social protection policies could go a long way towards addressing the different aspects of poverty by strengthening social sectors and by achieving the so-called “sustainable livelihood.”
Education and Child Labor
Education is another major factor connected with child labor. Problems within education like poor quality classes, inadequate supply of qualified teachers and imbalances between different geographical areas militate against higher enrollment rates. This, needless to say, leads to higher numbers of school age children entering the employment market. The enrollment rate at the national level in 1st grade is 51 percent of total school age children and at 6th grade it drops to 27 percent. There are huge gender disparities in school enrollment rates particularly in rural areas. In those regions, girls have to walk long distances to attend school and are overburdened with domestic tasks such as taking care of the livestock or searching for water supplies. Even if schools with the right facilities existed, all these tasks would leave them little time for it. The government of Yemen has taken positive steps to increase girls enrollment and the Ministry of Education has formulated a Girls’ Education Strategy which includes increasing female schools in lowly provided areas. The Dutch government. is also assisting the Ministry of Education in implementing the girls education strategy and UNICEF has undertaken a lot of teacher training for females in rural areas. Furthermore, with the World Bank’s “Basic Education Development Strategy,” one would hope for better delivery of education to the children of Yemen, higher enrollment rates, and less children engaged in petty trade on the streets. However, the achievement of the “Education for All” pledge which was decided at Jomtien and “Universal Primary Education” require interventions beyond the educational sector, more specifically in terms of addressing the structural causes of poverty.
Hazards of Child Labor
Children workers are faced with many dangers, both physical and psychological. Chemicals and toxins are often inhaled causing irreparable damages on the mental and body structures along with accidents at the workplace, as indicated by researches in other countries. Another problem in Yemeni child labor is that the majority of them are employed in the informal sector. This makes it more dangerous and children more prone to exploitation and abuse, since this sector is not covered by the Labor Law. In Turkey and Egypt, several researches revealed that the children were exposed to dangerous toxins while working in the leather tanning industries, in painting activities as well as in poorly ventilated places. In Lebanon, children working in tobacco culture were also found to be exposed to many hazards eventually causing severe brain damages. Needless to say, children are more vulnerable in their developmental stages and knowing one’s enemy is half the battle won as the saying goes. In many cases, minor changes were made like protective gear or safety equipment for those children who could not be immediately removed from work sites in an aim to dramatically improve their working conditions and eliminate work-related hazards. Rather than children contributions to their families with light and safe work, our discussion is focused on the more sinister and dangerous kinds of employment in which many children are involved.
Legislation on Child Labor and International Conventions
Yemen signed several international conventions with the ILO, like Convention 138 which sets the Minimum Age for Employment and Convention 182 on eliminating the worst forms of child labor. Although national legislation also exists, it is still not very explicit in addressing the issue of child labor. One of the objectives of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor of the ILO in Yemen is to undertake the task of harmonizing national legislation with international standards related to child labor.
The International Labor Organization has traditionally operated in different countries through a tripartite partnership, i.e., the Government represented by the Ministry of Labor, the Workers Unions or Trade Unions and Employers Organizations represented by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Yemen. However, a special program (IPEC) was established within the ILO which would tackle the problem of child labor in different countries because child workers needs differ from those of adults.
The Response from the ILO
The International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor in Yemen will launch many projects, which will address the different dimensions of child labor, under the umbrella of the Program with different partners. Four projects have already been formulated: a project with the Ministry of Labor, a project with the CLU of the General Federation of Workers’ Unions, one with the Federation of Yemeni Chambers of Commerce and Industry and with Child Labor Units established in all three organizations and supported by IPEC. The projects will largely concentrate on capacity building to support the Child Labor Units. The three organizations will work in close partnership as each will have a different role to play in fighting against child labor in Yemen.
The Ministry of Labor, the official body which signed a Memorandum of Understanding with ILO, will undertake the task of protection through Inspectorate and the field monitoring in a progressive plan to remove children from the most hazardous employment. It is also responsible for legislation and legislative reforms, as well as being the resource center for all information connected with child labor. The Workers’ Unions have a role to play in entering into collective bargaining with the employers as well as coordinating with the Inspectorate a campaign of awareness for the children and communities. The CLU of the FYCCI will initially conduct awareness raising campaigns along with the employers and, later on, will involve them in rehabilitation programs for child workers.
A research is also being undertaken as a fourth project with national research teams who will work on a critical survey of the phenomenon of child labor in Yemen. Findings are expected to be incorporated into the National Policy and Program Framework for the Elimination of Child Labor in Yemen. This will be looked at closer by the Ministry of Labor in close coordination with the World Bank.
A project is being formulated in collaboration with the Ministry of Education to address the issue of education and special needs of child workers. A second one will be formulated with the NGO sector where rehabilitation programs will be established by IPEC within the NGOs as well as different services given to child workers in drop-in centers such as education, food, counseling, and other help. A special program was set up to target the parents of child workers and provide them with alternatives to generate income. To alleviate child work without any serious alternatives already in place would indeed be disastrous and it is necessary to lay down an institutional framework to offer those alternatives. The Ministry of Information is also formulating a comprehensive media program in coordination with IPEC to include child labor on its media agenda. More projects may be formulated with other partners as the need arises.
Furthermore, an important aspect of this program is also networking with different governmental and international organizations in order to be linked with important ongoing programs in the country, as all these projects are considered to be pilot in order to show the possibilities and establish a comprehensive program. However, budgets are limited and IPEC or any other organization for that matter cannot do it alone. The aim is to convince the government of Yemen to adopt a policy with the possible assistance of the World Bank and any other organization that will address the issue of progressive elimination of child labor. This obviously cannot happen overnight. We need to combine other programs of poverty alleviation, income generation, educational reforms and development programs in the country. As I said before, we need to tackle the fundamental causes of this phenomenon for which cosmetic surgery will definitively not work. It is only the beginning of a long journey that may take a decade or two.
Turkey has been following this path for the past decades but are still far from eliminating child labor despite having the best program in the region.
The Private Sector and Child Labor
The private sector has equally a very important role to play in combating child labor, as done in other countries like India and others. There, the employers organizations have actually helped to support the education and training of child workers. Since most employers organizations claim that children usually work for the informal sector, which is not within the jurisdiction of employers organizations, they avoid accusation of being the culprits. However, they can play a positive role in forcing small-size employers to upgrade working conditions of children by making the work sites safer, and in forcing employers to give opportunities to children of getting education and health services. The industrial sector in India actually helped to support vocational training programs for children and so improving their skills, creating socio-economic mobility and eventually getting them out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Other countries in South East Asia also launched successful programs with the support of employers organizations which, in any case, have a vested interest in creating a skilled workforce for the future.
Something is missing in Yemen, that is a strong Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry as it can play a very crucial role in reducing child labor. As an organization dealing with regional and international organizations in promoting trade, the Federation is suffering from financial shortage and technical support to improve the productive sector. The productive sectors profits will indeed finance the social sectors which are facing a financial crisis. We cannot forever depend on loans or aid packages it times when most international organizations are talking about phasing out from various projects and cutting budgets. If we are thinking of joining the World Trade Organization in this age of globalization, we should re-think our present strategy as it is a loss to the national economy.
We have to seriously consider the future of this country where more than half of the school age population is out working on the streets, without a proper education or skills to improve the quality of their lives. Surely, as we all had the opportunity to survive, we owe to the present generation to open the same windows of opportunities. Considering how we adults have messed up the world for them, the choice is ours now but it may not be so very soon.