Poverty heightens child labor in Yemen [Archives:2006/955/Reportage]

June 15 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Jabri
He continued, “We live in danger. We don't go to school and we have no friends. We suffer terribly from various diseases because we work for hours under the sunrays, which have changed our skin color. We bear responsibilities beyond our age. We know not the sense of comfort, nor do we have a chance to play like other children. We no longer know how to laugh or smile because some of us have been exploited, hit and humiliated. I feel ashamed of working in the streets but I have no alternative. No one will respect me, even if I become grown up.”

The child went on to say that he was happy to know that such a message would be conveyed to the prime minister. He pointed out that there are hundreds of working children in need of centers to help them. He urged Bajammal to offer them free education, reduce study hours and allow them to study only basic subjects. He also wished that citizens would not regard them with contempt.

According to Minister of Industry and Trade Khalid Sheikh, poverty is the main reason for child labor and trafficking. “Child labor is associated with poverty and unemployment. For the most part, those children working for themselves do so at the cost of their education. Those who work for others are subject to sexual, physical and economic exploitation. Ninety percent of children work with their families' consent. If there is no awareness about this problem, child labor will continue.”

Local experts and reports indicate that as a developing country, Yemen experiences significant child labor and child trafficking, with 38 percent of children between age six and 17 outside of basic education.

Dr. Abdulhakim Al-Sharjabi, Director of the Ministry of Planning's Poverty Unit, said there are 326,000 child workers and 35,000 street children in Yemen, according to a 1999 workforce survey. “Families have a wrong concept about child labor. They think that when a child reaches age 10, he is able to work. This is one major reason for the increase in child labor. Many don't see this as violating children's rights.”

Additionally, Al-Sharjabi clarified that semi-unemployment also figures prominently in increasing child labor. “When a father receives insufficient income to maintain his family, he obliges his children to work,” he explained, affirming that children resort to working only if they are in need. Subsidies for poor families don't meet their needs, so they oblige their children to work, he noted.

Jamila Ali Raja'a, head of the Sana'a office of the International Program on Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), said child labor isn't a problem in Yemen because it's part of the social trend and an acceptable issue. “The problem of Yemen is how to implement international child labor conventions. Child labor has become familiar to us,” she said, adding that many girls work secretly, but there are no specific statistics on this.

According to Raja'a, IPEC implemented a 2000-2005 child labor program aimed at matching Yemeni child labor laws to international standards, as well as withdrawing and rehabilitating some child workers.

Child trafficking is most marked in northern Yemen's Hajja governorate, namely because it's near Saudi Arabia. Hajja Mayor Mohammed Al-Harazi said the phenomenon began when some Yemeni families emigrated to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life, returning with a good living standard. Afterward, some unseemly citizens formed what seemed like a gang to seduce other families into letting their children work in the kingdom.

“Citizens began sending their children with this gang to Saudi Arabia and the phenomenon became a profession instead of a disgrace,” he explained, “As a local council, we and some MPs made field visits, hoping to learn how the phenomenon occurs. After launching investigations, we discovered a deal between the family and the gang, whereby the family receives an amount of money, while the gang gets the greatest share. We met with Haradh district security authorities, Prosecution and judiciary in order to arrest the gang there. We arrested some members and the phenomenon now is reduced by half.”

Al-Harazi noted that special centers exist in the district for children arrested while attempting to infiltrate Saudi Arabia. “The problem is that some children come from other governorates. They refuse to tell us from where they come or about their families. This way, we can't contact their families to inform them about the danger of this phenomenon.”

For his part, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Abdu Al-Hakimi pointed out that child labor isn't confined to Yemen, but is found in both developed and developing countries. He noted that Yemen's government has taken some steps to curb child labor, including:

1- Establishing the Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood

2- Passing 2002's Child Rights Law No. 45 in an effort to implement 1989 International Child Rights Conventions

3- Cooperating with international organizations, namely the IPEC

4- Establishing a national strategy to help reduce child labor

5- Conducting many studies to identify the size of the phenomenon

Al-Hakimi added that the ministry also is focusing on visiting work fields in various governorates, where they met more than 500 child workers. It also is focusing on professional health issues, especially for those children working with herbicides.

Former 2004 Child Parliament member Izz Addin Al-Ariqi said Child Parliament members made field visits to streets, where they met many child workers. “We met them and found that poverty is the main reason behind their working. We also found that they left school and that they were treated badly.” Former Child Parliament member Ala'a Al-Haifi emphasized that child workers also experience sexual and physical defects.

A December 2001 study revealed that Yemeni society is still young, with children under age 14 comprising more than 46 percent of the total population in 2000 due to high 3.5 percent population growth. Such a demographic situation implies a high dependence ratio (41.6 percent) and strong annual workforce growth (4.4 percent), resulting in severe pressure on services and resources. This in turn has pushed children into the labor market, as reflected in declining school enrollment of 60 percent or even less in rural areas and among girls.

The study also mentioned that Yemen's Labor Law sets the working age at 15; however, human resource statistics had set it at 10 until 1999, when 15 was adopted as a minimum work age. Within the last decade, Yemen's child labor force expanded at an average annual rate of 3 percent, now estimated at 326,000 children age 14 or under (of whom 51.4 percent are girls), with 9 percent of children officially registered in school actually in the workforce.

Hajja governorate is worst in this regard, with 14 percent of the national child workforce, and Aden is best, with 0.03 percent. A Yemeni General Federation of Workers' Trade Union (YGFWTU) study found that, of those children surveyed, 96 percent had joined school, 52 percent are studying while working and the rest left school after either grade three or six.

According to the study, there is a direct relationship between child workers and the profession of their family breadwinners. Results of a 1999 Yemeni workforce survey conducted nationally revealed that most child workers have family breadwinners who are employed: 92 percent are agricultural workers, 4.8 percent are in services, 2.5 are unskilled laborers and 0.7 percent are semi-skilled professionals.

Child labor in Yemen is confined entirely to private business, particularly in the informal sector. This is the result of the civil service law, which regards the minimum work age as 18. The same tendency is evident in military establishments.

Additionally, the YGFWTU study clarified that statistics indicate that the majority of Yemeni child workers work for their families. Of those working outside the family, male children comprise 83.2 percent. This is especially the case in rural areas.

Outside the family, the informal sector has become the last resort for child workers. This is problematic because Yemen's informal sector is huge and lacks social insurance or protection regarding vocational health and safety, thus subjecting children to significant dangers.