Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Why do children work? ‘It is how I take care of myself’

Some children start work against their parents' wishes, and bans on child labour make it impossible to protect them on the job

7 April 2022, 6.00am
Heyford Telli. All rights reserved.

This story is part of a series of child worker voices that Beyond Trafficking and Slavery gathered in the Lake Volta and Brong Ahafo regions of Ghana, areas frequently targeted for intervention by people seeking to end child labour. The children were asked to describe their work, why they do it, and how the country's decision-makers could help them. Their answers were translated out of the local Twi language and edited for clarity.

I am 16 years old. I come from a village on the Ghana-Ivory Coast border; my mother and brothers are still there. I work as a labourer in a brick and block factory in the city of Sunyani. I also work on construction sites digging foundations, mixing mortar, or any other job that might be available. I washed cars before I started working in construction. A friend told me that although construction work is harder it is better paid. I have been doing it for almost two years now and he was right.

I dropped out of school during Class 5. My parents did everything to make me stay in school. Sometimes my mother walked me to the school premises, but after she left I would run away. I just didn’t understand anything there. Every now and then I wonder what my life would have become if I had stayed. But I know several guys who went to good schools in Sunyani, Kumasi and even Accra. They are now working as constructions labourers too.

They can read and write, but they are not better off than me. Some even ask me for loans, and they look up to me to pay for the food and drinks when we go out because I am better off financially. I couldn’t complete school, but I can now support myself and have a small amount of savings for emergencies. I even managed to support my mother last year when she needed a stomach operation. Without the money I was able to give her, she couldn’t have got the operation. The doctor said my mother would have died. So while I think about school, being able to work is more important to me because it is how I take care of myself. I want to continue being able to do so.

Police officers are not beaten or cheated when they go to work, so why did they allow that to happen to us?

Anyone who is interested in the affairs of people like me should help us with our work. We face many problems because we do not have their support. The conditions are good in the bricks and blocks factory where I work, but I have worked at other sites where the people are not very nice. They found excuses to not pay us the amount we agreed at the beginning. Some insulted us if they thought we were not working hard enough. They cursed us when something went wrong with the work, even when it was not our fault.

One time a site foreman refused to pay us for nearly a month, although we agreed he would pay us weekly. We decided to stop working and demand our money, but he and his sons said we had disrespected him. We were led by a man called James. They beat him up so badly that he lost several teeth. The rest of us – men, women, and children – ran away from the site. We were afraid to go back and ask for our money, so someone suggested that we report it to the police. They said they would investigate it, but they didn’t. We went to the police station several times but they kept telling us stories.

Police officers are not beaten or cheated when they go to work, so why did they allow that to happen to us? I asked one of them this question. Instead of giving me an answer, he said I was under 18 and I should have been in school instead of working at the site, so I don’t have a case. We never got our money.

It pains me whenever I think about this case. I want things like that to stop. Every worker should be treated fairly. It shouldn’t matter whether they are under 18. It shouldn’t matter what work they do. School is not for me and I want to continue my work without being abused or denied payment. They should make laws that allow me to work in peace and protection, because that is my choice.

About the Artist

My name is Hayford Telli and I'm a self-taught artist in Accra, Ghana. At 11 I was inspired to draw by the cartoon series Captain Planet, and my first sketches were of the show's characters. I continued to develop my skills by doing portraits of friends. Eventually I began to earn income by busking as a sketch artist on the street and by selling my own work. Art has opened up my life opportunities after much adversity as a child. I am now an entrepreneur in street art and digital designs. I also offer other youth life chances by giving them training and employment. We hope to extend our services and horizons beyond the borders of Ghana and welcome anyone who is interested in working with us.

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