Jordan and Egypt are leading the battle against child labor in the Arab world, experts have claimed, ahead of World Day Against Child Labor on Monday.
The annual event, inaugurated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2002, encourages countries around the globe to scrutinize the human rights issue of child labor. While war, poverty, and natural disasters have given rise to the issue, two countries are making impressive headway against it.
Jordan amended its child labor law in 2008 and has implemented it rigorously in recent years. Meanwhile, Egypt banned the employment of children under the age of 15 in the workplace last year.
“I have worked in both countries and can vouch for the effort they’ve made,” said Ben Smith, child labor specialist at the ILO.
Egypt and Jordan are making efforts against child labor
“In Jordan, they’ve made a big push for labor inspection, which looks out for child labor and [is] a key element of government response. It is not just enforcement but referring them to authorities,” Smith said. “[The Jordanians] have made a big effort with child labor monitoring systems that can refer children to the services that they need—education and counseling and so on.”
“In Egypt, they have done a lot of work on looking at the supply chain,” Smith continued. “They have taken significant and positive steps, looking at the legal framework and the institutional setup to respond to the problem.”
Rania Aljawi, child protection quality assurance lead at the humanitarian organization World Vision International, was equally full of praise for the two countries.
“They are way better than other countries in the region,” she told The Media Line. “In Egypt, there is a law with a legal arm to minimize and reduce child labor in these countries.”
Anas Ghaith, a social worker in Jordan, founded a social work lab specializing in child protection. He told The Media Line there has been significant progress but the country has not fully eliminated the problem, due to ingrained societal attitudes that allow children to work to support their families.
“I see my colleagues working hard to bring in new legislation to prevent child labor issues in Jordan but the government cannot implement [the law fully] because sometimes it can make things worse for the family,” Ghaith explained.
“We have good people and a good community working in this field. But we will not change the culture unless we work in a scientific way to change behaviors,” he added.
Ghaith, who also takes on individual casework, explained that many of the children working on the street in Jordan are being exploited.
“Sometimes you notice that one man has a big bus or truck and makes children sell water or gum, so sometimes the Ministry of Social Affairs collects these children and puts them in an institution for one or two days until their parents come and agree that they will not let their children work,” he said. “If it happens more than once, the police then [charge] the family with child abuse.”
Cultural differences between Arab countries
He noted the cultural difference between Syrians and Jordanians on the subject.
“[Jordanians] let their children work to increase the income for the family. Sometimes there are problems at home; the father is unwell and cannot work so the child needs to go,” he said.
Ghaith said that in rural Jordanian localities, it’s less popular to send children to school. Instead, they go to agricultural camps and work picking and loading vegetables, getting paid around 1 dinar ($1.40) an hour. These children can begin work at the age of 8 or 9.
However, he noted that “in Syrian culture, when the father reaches around 45 years old, he starts to feel he is old and should stop working. They see their children as young and [able to] work. In Jordan, we don’t tend to let our children work unless they don’t want to continue their studies, or they [are impoverished].”
Despite the progress in Jordan and Egypt, the latest figures show a huge increase in child labor in the region. The number of working children 5-11 years old in the Arab world has doubled from 1.2 million in 2016 to 2.4 million in 2020, according to the ILO, which provides the leading statistical analysis of the subject.
This figure does not include children aged 12-17. In a report on the ILO website, the figure is significantly higher due to factoring in children up to age 17. While the statistics only take into account children from age 5, they can start to work even younger.
The website states: “In the Arab states, children and young adults make up half the population of 280 million. An estimated 13.4 million, or about 15%, of all children in the region, are child laborers. The real level of child labor may be much higher, however, because of the predominance of child labor in the informal sector, which is difficult to measure. Work in the urban informal sector, seasonal agriculture, street work, [and] domestic labor … are of particular concern.”
Children often work in hazardous jobs
Typically, children across the region work in agriculture, services and tourism, and construction, as well as in “private workshops like carpentry, small to medium enterprises and family businesses,” according to Aljawi.
“In the Arab region, there is the type of work where children go to big garbage areas to collect metals and things that can be recycled,” she said. “So they are sent in groups, and the materials that can be recycled are sold to factories. This is prevalent in the Arab countries.”
In addition to the high numbers, much of the work children do is hazardous, with about 38% of 5-11-year-olds working in dangerous environments.
“In terms of hazardous work, a high share of the child labor in the region is hazardous, which puts child safety and development at risk,” Smith said.
“About 64% of the work is hazardous so that’s very alarming considering these are young children who are particularly vulnerable because they’re still developing,” he continued. “About 84% of the child labor in agriculture is hazardous, more than three quarters in industry is hazardous and about 20% in services. It is not safe work by any means that they are engaged in, and it has repercussions all along the life course.”
The countries with the highest rates of child labor are Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. According to UNICEF, 23% of children aged 5-17 are working in Yemen and 5% are working in Iraq. There are no figures for Libya and Syria.
“Maybe Iraq recently started to recover from the war and to have more advanced policies for child protection but there is still the issue of the child labor among the IDPs [internally displaced populations],” Aljawi said. “Syria for sure is one of the areas affected by more than 10 years of war, and child labor is one of the highest rates among child protection issues. [They are at risk of] physical injury and death.”
“Palestine [has one of the higher rates], mainly Gaza and Area C of the West Bank, because of the deteriorated economic situation, the escalations of violence and political violence.”Rania Aljawi
“Also in Yemen, child labor has one of the higher rates, with risks for children,” she went on. “[Also] Palestine, mainly Gaza and Area C of the West Bank, because of the deteriorated economic situation, the escalations of violence and political violence.”
Unsurprisingly, children in countries undergoing crisis are most vulnerable, due to lack of schooling. Sudan, with its ongoing political crisis, is an example of this phenomenon.
“Because there is no school and no place the children can go, they might be recruited to go to the labor market and work as cheap laborers, working for twelve hours a day,” Aljawi said. She explained that they also face a constant risk of being recruited into the army as child soldiers, or to serve in other ways.
“From age 13 they can be at risk of being recruited into the army,” Aljawi said. “Now with the Sudan crisis, there is more risk of children going into the sex trade in Yemen, Libya—although there are not many statistics for Libya—and Syria.”
“In Sudan, the disruption to education for many children and the migration that the conflict has instigated is certainly worrying and cause for concern that child labor can increase,” Smith added.
In addition to national traumas such as war, other factors such as natural disasters and even climate change can worsen the problem, particularly for already vulnerable populations such as migrants and indigenous peoples.
“Household poverty, lack of education and opportunity, the lack of social protection for households—all those things apply. And then we have aggravating factors, shocks, and climate change [which can] exacerbate household poverty,” Smith said. He explained many of the natural disasters linked to climate change can be a driver of child labor.
“When there are natural disasters, the risk of child labor really increases in the aftermath,” Smith said. “Aside from the severe weather, it’s things like crop failure, scarcity of water, and households relying on children to collect water. If water is scarcer and there are longer distances to travel to get it, that burden often falls on children’s shoulders.”
Smith says there is a common misconception that a certain amount of child labor is to be expected in developing countries due to poverty. But, he argues, “actually, it is every child’s right to be protected from child labor.”
“It’s not just the poor countries that have child labor; most child labor occurs in middle-income countries,” Smith continued. “It’s not just a matter of economic growth and progress. We must have the right policies in place, we have to protect children in vulnerable groups, particularly migrants, children with disabilities, minorities that might be excluded socially.”