What to do about child labour?

SANAA, 13 June 2010 (IRIN) - Children in Yemen work on fishing vessels off the Aden coast, in bustling markets carrying goods, in factories doing menial jobs, in fields picking qat - the leaves of Catha edulis, which are chewed as a euphoric stimulant - and at intersections in the larger cities, begging or selling goods to motorists.

Samih Abbas Ali says he is 14 years old, but his head hardly reaches window height of the large sports utility vehicles waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection in the capital, Sanaa. He spends all day with his father and four brothers selling garlands of jasmine flowers, and earns around 500 Yemeni rials (US$2.23).

Samih left school after second grade. "The teachers didn't care about us, and I didn't like it," he said. "I can earn good money selling jasmine, so why go back to school?"

World Day against Child Labour was celebrated on 12 June. A new study on child labour, The national child survey, by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL), and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) - the first of its kind in Yemen - will help determine the number of children working.

According to the US Department of Labor, in 2002, the government passed the Yemeni Child Rights Law, which set the minimum legal working age at 14. While the law prohibits the employment of children under 15 in industrial work, there are no restrictions, regardless of age, on children working in family businesses.

The Combating Child Labour Unit at MOSAL said a government survey in 2000 found there were 421,000 child labourers nationwide, but Ahmed al-Gorashi of Seyaj, a local child protection NGO, estimated that there could be as many as 3.5 million child labourers in Yemen.

"There is an alarming need for us to have a better understanding of child labour in Yemen," said Raidan al-Saqqaf, National Coordinator of the ILO in Yemen. "Obviously, there is some contention about the numbers, but the estimates are that there are between 500,000 and 550,000 working children."

Poverty drives child labour

There is reason to be concerned. Yemen has one of the highest population growth rates globally - 3.02 percent - while 41.8 percent of its people live below the national poverty line, and 45.9 percent are younger than 15, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The national child survey will focus on children between the ages of 5 and 17 and is expected to be concluded by the end of 2010. "With this survey we are hoping to better understand the issue ... to mitigate the negative consequences of child labour," said al-Saqqaf.

School's out forever

"It is the poverty that forces families to push their children to work," said Muna Ali Salem, Manager of the Child Labour Unit at MOSAL. "But many children also work because they failed at their studies."

The 2009 Yemen Baseline Report on Child Labour, by the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) International, found that most children worked to supplement their family's income, but some also joined the workforce because they failed in school. 

The baseline report was part of a three-year programme - Alternatives to Combat Child Labour through Education and Sustainable Services (ACCESS-Plus) - funded by the US Department of Labour and implemented in the coastal governorates of Aden, Hudeidah, Taiz and Hajjah.

Over 20 percent of the children surveyed said they "could not afford school expenses", "did not perform well in school" or that "school is irrelevant".

"There are many problems in the school system," said MOSAL's Salem. "Sometimes there are as many as 100 to 150 students in one class, so when the child fails in school they find a job."

The vicious circle

Yemen is signatory to the ILO Convention 182 - the Worst Forms of Child Labour (WFCL) - but it is a long way away from reaching the target of eliminating WFCL by 2016, the goal set by the ILO in the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

According to Salem, Yemen has 17 trained child labour inspectors to prevent WFCL nationwide, but even the 25 extra inspectors to be trained in June might not be enough. According to the World Bank there are 1.8 million children out of school, and the problem of child labour appears to be growing.

"We get money from the government, but it is not enough," said Salem. Only YR2 million (about $8,900) per year is earmarked for the fight against child labour.

"If people are poor their children are often forced to work, but it's a vicious circle; when children work instead of getting an education, they in turn grow up and become poor," Salem pointed out. "We depend on organisations like CHF and ILO to combat child labour here in Yemen."