Child workers in Jordan shoulder effects of rising poverty levels
High rates of poverty and unemployment make plans to eliminate child labour in Jordan a pipe dream
Obada sells fruit by the roadside in Al Rama, Jordan largely by himself these days. His 14-year-old brother used to do most of the work, but after he was hit by a car driving the wrong way Obada stepped in to run the family’s stall. “He broke his arm,” Obada said. When asked if he was worried it might happen to him too, he said, “No, I’m not scared at all.”
The 16-year-old is now his family’s main breadwinner. His father lost his legs to gangrene seven years ago. As a double amputee, his main economic contribution is the 150 dinars (£170) he receives every month from the state as a Jordanian citizen. Obada’s mother, meanwhile, has her hands full caring for his younger siblings. “I’m the one who works the most – I work every day,” Obada said. “I’m proud of it. I feel like it’s normal… I go to school, but only occasionally. My dad can’t work at the stall by himself.”
Obada said he is saving up to buy an iPhone, and that at some point he would like to train to be a barber. These modest ambitions, along with the demands of earning for his family, make work a necessity for the teenager. And despite the challenges, he said he didn’t understand why some people wanted to stop children working. “Who would bring money for the house? If we have to stop, then who would bring money?” he asked, before sprinting off to speak to a customer who had just pulled up next to his stall.
“The economic situation is putting more and more pressure on people and it is resulting in such phenomena.”
According to the latest official statistics, published in 2016, around 75,000 children are working in Jordan. Ahmad Awad, the director of Jordan Labour Watch at the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, believes the number is now higher. Adult unemployment, school closures during the pandemic, and school quality are all factors that have pushed children into work in the past years. “Educational conditions are very poor”, he said, and even though corporal punishment is illegal in Jordan, mistreatment from teachers is common. This makes school less attractive to pupils. Awad added that pressure on the labour market from refugee populations also exacerbates the issue. He estimated that “16% of child labour belongs to the Syrian families”.
However, Awad emphasised that these factors are secondary to the generally high level of poverty in Jordan, which austerity measures are now exacerbating. “I couldn’t understand the World Bank when they announced to support global efforts … to eliminate child labour, while they are supporting governments to implement austerity measures,” he said. “They are encouraging our governments to decrease the public budget by decreasing social expenditures, which means decreasing the budget of education, while they are announcing they will eliminate child labour. This is against each other.”
Elimination by 2025?
Inconsistencies at a policy level are furthered by the gap between policy goals and implementation on the ground. UNICEF, one of the main actors responding to child labour in Jordan, has committed to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by the year 2025 (the International Labour Organisation’s own goal reaches further and aims to eliminate all child labour by 2025). In practice, this often means working to reduce, rather than to eliminate, child work in Jordan.
Mohaned Al Hami, a child protection officer at UNICEF, admitted that there are challenges to pursuing the 2025 goal. But he defended the choice to keep elimination as the target. “I believe that if you target the moon, at least when you fall, you will shoot a star,” he said. Al Hami explained that, for the 700 child workers UNICEF has supported so far within their child protection programme, there have been a variety of outcomes. “As a result of the programmes, some of the children stopped work, some changed the form of work, or decreased work and went back to school,” he said. “I believe the children are the champions themselves. When you ask them, mostly they want to go back to education.”
Haneen Mohammed, a child protection advisor at Rowad AlKhair, one of UNICEF’s implementing partners in Jordan, agreed that practical decisions have to be made on the ground. “It would be a dream to say we could stop child labour,” she said. “But we sometimes have to engage the children and [help them to] reduce the hours of work, so that’s really reducing the child labour.”
“Why should I stay sitting, when tomorrow I’m going to grow up and it’s going to be hard to depend on myself?”
Al Hami and Mohammed are currently establishing a UNICEF child labour programme in Ghour Al Mezraa, a rural agricultural area south of the Dead Sea. One of the children they identified for support is Hamza. Now 14, Hamza has worked on his family’s farm for 12 hours a day, six days a week since he was 11. “I had a bad feeling when I had to leave school,” he said. “It was hard. I liked school, but I had to leave.”
Among other duties, Hamza sprays pesticides and herbicides on the crops. Because of the hazards associated with spraying chemicals, agricultural work is considered to be among the worst forms of child labour. When asked how he felt about his work, Hamza said, “I don’t know how to explain it. You could say, thanks God, I’m supporting my family. But when I return to school and then maybe go to the army, I’ll feel better.”
As part of their child protection programme, Rowad AlKhair has referred Hamza to the Ministry of Education in order to support his return to school. Mohammed said that, to facilitate this, Hamza’s family will receive emergency cash assistance so they can pay off the debts that his income helps cover. It’s about support, she said, rather than blame: “We are not working with the father or the mother as a perpetrator. They are families in need, and we work with them on how to respect the children’s rights.”
Punitive responses to child labour
While the official narrative of governments and NGOs is centred around support, the response on the streets can look quite different. Punitive measures are often favoured by authorities, which generally exacerbate rather than address root causes such as poverty. Labour laws in Jordan dictate that employers should receive a fine of 50 JODs (£57) if a child under 16 is working for them, and 100 JODs (£113) on occasion of repeat offence. Oftentimes, however, the employer and the child may be members of the same family, and complex relationships or residency statuses can muddy the picture. Tamkeen, an organisation offering legal aid to child workers, often finds itself settling cases outside of court because of this. Linda Aklash, Tamkeen’s director, said, “[The families] are afraid that maybe it will make problems for them, especially if they are refugees … many of them have a good relationship with the employers.”
Children living in the capital have also experienced punishment at the hands of the authorities. Begging is a criminal offence in Jordan, and anyone over the age of 12 can be charged. Shop owners in downtown Amman said that children as young as nine or 10 have told them that they’ve been arrested and detained for selling items on the streets or begging. Some children said they have been held for up to a week. Fadi Amireh, the owner of Jadal, a cultural centre in downtown Amman, said he notices when these children go missing, or when there are changes. “I saw one of them with his hair all cut,” Amireh said. “I asked him if he was okay, and he told me that he was arrested in Jabal Al Weibdeh [central Amman] by officials because of selling things.”
Amireh added that government policies are making things worse, not better. “A few years ago, most of the working kids I saw were Syrians. Now it's mixed,” he said. “The economic situation is putting more and more pressure on people and it is resulting in such phenomena.”
In response to claims of arrests of children, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development said children who are found begging “are placed in a care centre by court order, not prison.” He added that oversight for child labour in Jordan lies with the Ministry of Labour. A Ministry of Labour spokesperson stated that both ministries are addressing child labour through joint projects, which offer social support and “dialogue and awareness sessions for employers and families”.
While such dialogue may play an important role, it does not address the structural and material conditions pushing many children into work in the first place. Jordan’s national unemployment rate sits at just over 23%, and has been steadily increasing over a five-year period. As long as these conditions are maintained, and child labour responses continue to apply sticking plasters with one hand and punishment with the other, working children will continue to bear the brunt.
For many of those children, the picture is somewhat smaller. Daily survival is the priority. Yousef, a 17-year-old who works at a coffee kiosk down the road from Obada in Al Rama, said he feels proud to work, and that to not work would be “wrong.” “Why should I stay sitting, when tomorrow I’m going to grow up and it’s going to be hard to depend on myself?” he asked. “My parents are so important. If I could help them 1000 times extra, I would.”
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