Last month, the Global March against child labour entered Spain, passing through various cities then arriving in Barcelona, the penultimate stop on its Iberian leg, before going on to France and eventually Geneva for the annual assembly of the International Labour Organisation. In every city there were official governmental receptions and non-governmental festivities which gave voice to some of the children who were participating. We heard from Jamal, a 15 year old from Bangladesh who told of his lost childhood, as one of the 1200 children who work in the capital Dakar. At eight, he was sent by his mother to work for a local terrorist group. There he learned to make home-made grenades for half a dollar a day, as well as the art of pick-pocketing, the proceeds of which went to help fund the group's activities.
Or Marcela, a young girl from Honduras who worked in a shoe factory where they only employ children from 12 to 17 years of age. After an official reception at La Mancloa in Madrid, she told the press that President Aznar spoke about "his support of the march" and that "he like children very much and stated that one should have a family", and he also said that child labour is "one of the most unacceptable and intolerable situations that is occurring in the world today." No mention was made, however, of the situation in his own back yard.
Whilst it is true that child labour is a major and tragic problem in the third world and developing countries, the problem in not exclusively theirs. According to figures provided by governments and compiled by labour unions, Britain, the European country with the highest poverty rate (it is estimated that 32 percent of families are living below the poverty line) there are about 800,000 under-aged workers. Germany and Italy put their figures at about 300,000 and in Portugal the government admits there are about 160,000 children employed.
In Spain, however, the situation is slightly more confusing. According to the report, an official study is yet to be carried out, which leaves the authorities relying on old statistics and estimations from diverse sources. UNICEF, along with various non-governmental organisations puts the figure at about 500,000, whilst a 1995 report that was carried out by the Grupo de Trabajo Internacional Sobre Trabajo Infantil, which took into account factors such as the number of children living in poverty and school absenteeism, says that Spain's figures could be up there with that of Britain.
The service industry is the largest employer of children, 38 percent of the overall total of child workers, and the report adds that the majority of these businesses are family owned, either employing the child full-time or after school hours and during vacations, denying them vital time for personal development. But it is perhaps the agricultural sector (31 percent in the overall total) that is the most disturbing.
Many families in rural areas live a state of permanent displacement, forced to leave their base and go where temporary agricultural work is available. It is estimated that 60 percent of these families do so because there is no other paid work. Children that go with their parents can work up to 14 hours a day in busy periods such as harvest, making it impossible for them to attend school. Despite efforts by local administrations to enroll them in schools in their new locations, the economic needs of their families often impede them from doing so, at least on a regular basis.
Last year, the Union General de Trabajadores carried out an inspection of temporary rural workers in Aragon and found a great number of children among them. The report, presented to Aragonese authorities, told of the deplorable temporary housing that the workers had been supplied with: unsanitary facilities and lack of light and water. There was no effort to ensure that an educational-programme was being carried out for the under-aged.
It is obvious that the biggest cause of child labour is unemployment and poverty, but there are more subliminal factors. Many parents, especially from high unemployment areas, also see work as "privilege", something to be jumped at when the opportunity arises. The UK recently introduced tough penalties for parent s of children with high rates of school absenteeism, moving the onus from the child to the parent. Time will tell if any of it has any significant effect.
And, there are two other factors at work here: The first is the drop-out rate from school, which is the principal cause and effect of child employment. The second factor was picked up by Costa Rica's employment minister at his country's reception for the marchers: "Poverty is not the only reason for child labour. Many of our children are heavily influenced by the consumerist publicity they are subjected to. They feel that they have to have the latest pair of brand-name trainers or jeans and that's why they work."
He was referring to children who don't have to work out of absolute necessity, but it is ironic that children like Marcela wind up labouring in sweat shops producing the very goods that they aspire to have.