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Suffer the children

Vereniasi Raicola
Saturday, May 12, 2007

THE Employment Act states that children under 12 years are not to be employed except for light work or in a family business where they are paid on a daily basis.

But if we look around we see children employed as wheelbarrow boys, bottle collectors, shoeshine boys, supermarket packers, bus checkers, farm hands and in many other areas.

Most of the children are forced to do hard labour to provide for their family.

In most cases their parents were forced out of employment for health reasons or lost their jobs because of circumstances such as coups or political upheavals.

The Wikipedia encyclopedia describes child labour as employment of children under an age determined by law or custom.

Child labour can be factory work, mining or quarrying, agriculture, helping in the family business, selling food or doing odd jobs.

Today, we hear of child prostitution. Mothers are forced to send their daughters on to the streets to supplement the income at home.

The economic situation in Fiji does not bring any assurance because more and more people are being sent home, and fewer tourists are coming for a holiday.

Poor families rely on the labour of their children for survival. In some cases they are the sole breadwinner in the family.

Not long ago, an independent study on child labour was commissioned by the Fiji Employers Federation on behalf of the British American Tobacco company.

In that report, traditional farming communities which were surveyed said they expected rural children to help with family tasks including working on the tobacco farm.

The study found that two per cent of farm children in tobacco growing areas missed school on a regular basis to work on the farms while 18 per cent missed school during busy crop periods.

Child Labour Planning Committee chairman Nezbit Hazelman said this year's World Day against Child Labour, to be celebrated on June 12, would focus on the elimination of child labour in agriculture.

He said agriculture was where the largest percentage of working children was found worldwide.

An International Labour Organisation paper presented at the meeting yesterday stated more than 132 million girls and boys aged five to 14 years often worked from sunrise to sunset around the world on farms planting and harvesting crops, spraying pesticide and tending livestock.

Child labour, according to the ILO convention, is work that harms children's wellbeing and hinders their education, development and future livelihood.

When children work long hours in the fields, their ability to attend school or skills training is limited and this prevents them from gaining education which would lift them out of poverty in the future. ILO director Abu Zakaria said the fight against child labour in the world continued to be a daunting challenge.

In a training report held in March and released yesterday on child labour issues in Fiji, Mr Zakaria stated while people in the Pacific were in an advantageous position not to have a large number of child labourers it did not mean that its worst forms did not exist.

"As a matter of fact this is a new but progressively growing concern.

"In Fiji, children work as garage hands, in small shops, repairing shoes and spreading insecticide in farms and many other areas," he said.

UNICEF child protection project officer in the Pacific Mereia Carling said children's rights were defined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child and constituted what they were legally entitled to in order to survive, be protected and develop.

She said the four principles of the convention could be used to asses whether a working child was a child labourer or not.

"UNICEF recognises work at home is all right as long as it is not dangerous and does not prevent the child from going to school," she said.

Labour Ministry's standard services manager Harbans Narayan said a child under 12 years should not be employed except for light work and family-owned agricultural business earning a wage paid on a day to day basis.

He said the child must return home to his parents before nightfall.

"The restrictions on employment include any which is dangerous, industrial work and attending to machinery.

"There must be 30 minutes break every two hours and not more than six hours of work a day.

"The total time spent at work and school is not to be more than seven hours.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Filipe Jitoko said it was hard to keep children at school.

"There is a need to work with policies from various angles to deal with the problem of keeping children at school and there is no simple solution.

"That is why the ministry is keen to look at total partnerships to tackle the challenge effectively," he said.

Mr Jitoko said there was a continuous decline in primary school enrolment and in secondary schools there was a need to retain more children in the classroom.

He said the secondary school dropout rate was high with the highest after Form Four because of those who failed the Fiji Junior Certificate Examination.

Mr Jitoko said causes for dropping out of school included family financial situation, peer pressure between students, disciplinary problems which has increased in schools, lack of opportunities, access problems for those in rural areas and lack of support for secondary education as most were in urban areas.

He said some students simply did not find education interesting and some, especially in the cane belt areas, were expected to be employed by the families.

Social worker Maheezabeen Khalid, a member of the Fiji Muslim League women's branch said child labour was prevalent in Suva and urban areas because of expiring land leases forcing farmers and their families to join the urban drift in search of a place to live and work.

"There are more squatters in Suva and such, child labour in squatter settlements is prevalent."

Ms Khalid said even though there were no statistics available the government of the day needed to address the issue seriously as it was a growing problem.

"We visit these areas and through our social work the children are persuaded to return to school."

Ms Khalid said in most cases they saw, children were forced into paid work because of poverty and broken families. She said most of the families where these children came from earned less than $60 a week.

Ms Khalid said the Muslim League had a special fund kept aside which was used to pay for the school fees of children forced into employment for various reasons.

"We have helped many families and Muslims from around the world donate."

Ms Khalid said more children could be forced into employment because many workers being laid off as a result of factory closures.

She said most families found it hard to help themselves and many women were often left on their own to fend for their children while the husband stayed with another woman.

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