Yemen: Political Upheaval Likely to Increase Child Labour

HAJJAH, 6 October 2011 (IRIN) - More parents are likely to put their children to work amid the upheaval caused by months of anti-government protests in Yemen, government and aid sources say.

Yemen is already home to one million child labourers, mostly employed in the fishing industry or agriculture, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour’s Child Labour Combating Unit.

With poverty being a key factor in child labour in Yemen, many more families are sending their children to work to boost family income amid increasing food prices caused by the unrest, Muna Salim, head of the unit, told IRIN.

“Streets of main cities are currently filled with children seeking work,” she said.

In addition, several thousand children have not been able to go to school because school buildings have either been used as bases by pro- and anti-government forces or are in high-risk urban conflict zones. Other children are unable to attend their schools because they are occupied by people displaced by a separate conflict between Islamist militants and the government in the south.

“These children are at high risk of joining any of the forms of child labour,” Ahmad al-Qurashi, chairman of the local NGO Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection (SOCP), told IRIN.

The political crisis has also affected government coffers. Oil exports have decreased; citizens are refusing to pay taxes; and municipalities are not paying water and electricity bills. The government has trimmed budgets in order to cope, cutting the annual funding for the Child Labour Combating Unit in half to YR1 million (US$4,500), Salim said.

A training programme for child labour field inspectors, which began in August 2010, initiated by the unit and the International Labour Organization (ILO), was halted in February due to political unrest and a funding shortfall. Another awareness programme for families, child workers and employers, which was meant to start in February with funding from the government, was also put on hold, she said.

Dangerous work

More than 90 percent of child workers live in rural areas, and children in these areas are five times more likely to be working than children in urban areas, said a 2009 report by CHF International.

Since 2001, the Child Labour Combating Unit - in conjunction with the ILO - has managed to rescue 4,200 children from dangerous jobs.

The risks typically involve exposure to pesticides, and operating dangerous agricultural equipment. Current labour law in Yemen defines a working child as a person under 15, but does not specify a minimum age of employment.

In its second phase from September 2008 to August 2011, the Access-Plus Project, run by local NGO Charitable Society for Social Welfare and Community Housing Foundation International, with funds from the US Department of Labor, currently has 7,363 former child labourers, or children at risk of being engaged in labour, enrolled in education programmes in the governorates of Hajjah, Taiz, Aden and Hodeidah, according to project director Roberta Contin.

Over 5,000 of them are aged 6-14 and enrolled in formal education; 750 are in vocational training, like sewing and embroidery; and 1,301 in literacy courses for those aged 14-17.

Some children have had to miss literacy and vocational training classes because of the political unrest. Other project activities have been delayed, reduced or cancelled.

Thousands of children stop going to school just to illegally migrate to Saudi in search of workAnother 6,400 children have already gone through the Access-Plus Project during the programme's first phase from September 2004 to August 2008, which provides them with school uniforms, shoes, school bags and stationery; and exempts them from paying tuition fees.

Saudi pull

Children in Hajjah Governorate are particularly vulnerable, as neighbouring countries with higher living standards can be enticing to parents. “As the governorate is close to the border with Saudi Arabia, thousands of children stop going to school just to illegally migrate to Saudi in search of work,” project manager Jamal al-Haddi told IRIN.

The Access-Plus Project also caters for children with learning disabilities and has set up 24 classrooms for that purpose. “These classrooms, equipped with computers, educational games and other remedial education equipment, have proved effective in helping children with retarded mental growth read and write," al-Haddi said.

Lawyer Mohammed al-Rowaini told IRIN amendments to the labour law presented to parliament in October 2010 include stipulating a minimum age for employment, and forcing employers to get written consent from a parent or guardian before employing someone aged under 15, with sanctions against employers who fail to comply.

However, the current political turmoil has put paid to the amendment’s passage through parliament.

This article orginally ran in IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis