Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Working children claim their rights in Cameroon

Society rarely respects child workers, but what happens when they demand it?

Wilfried Essomba Onguene
27 October 2021, 6.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved

My name is Wilfried Essomba Onguene and I grew up in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. At a certain point in my childhood, my parents experienced many problems. My father was no longer regularly at home and it became difficult for my mother to care for us. I decided to take charge and support the household by providing for food.

This is how I started to work as a child. Today, I have a degree in monitoring and evaluation. I’ve worked for several associations over the years, and I’m currently the monitoring and evaluation officer for Enda Jeunesse Action, an NGO supporting the African Movement of Working Children and Youth. My experience of transitioning from a child worker ‘victim’ to an actor who has realised many of his life goals and projects is a driving force behind the work I do now. I feel compelled to talk about children and young people in work situations, and to support them to organise themselves.

My experience as a child worker

My mother was a hairdresser and my father an accountant. I began to feel pressure to work once their troubles began, and it eventually grew so strong that I could no longer continue school. Despite the fact that I was enrolled, I had to stop. I found work at the local Essos market, and I worked the whole day in order to go home with some food, clothes and other basic necessities.

At the market I had many jobs. I emptied bins, cleaned tables and washed dishes in the restaurant. I carried luggage, worked in the bookstore, and even collected rocks to sell during the rainy season. In the beginning it was difficult, especially the work as a porter. We children had many customers because people knew we could be paid less for carrying heavy loads. It was hard but I had no choice. I had to take care of myself and my family.

Our precarious situation did not give people the right to hit us, to take our money, to snatch our goods, or to cut our wages.

Some days I was beaten. Perhaps I had bumped into someone with the luggage carrier, or got accused of theft, or the customer did not want to respect the contract. Whatever the problem was, in the eyes of the grown-ups I was always in the wrong. My bosses also found excuses to cut my salary. I had no one to defend me. I was left alone to face these problems.

The secret to realising my life plans as a working child

One day some young people noticed me with a group of friends, and they listened to us as we talked about our daily life, the reasons why we had ended up in work, and the difficult working conditions we were experiencing.

For the first time we had the opportunity to talk freely about our lives, the things we were not happy about, and what we wanted to change. For the first time somebody was listening to our concerns. These children, it turned out, were from the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY). With their help we realised that we should organise ourselves to change these things, and that we should have a group of people dedicated to making us respected in the market.

This was a great motivation for us. We understood that we were not obliged to work under bad conditions, and that together we had the power to change things. We understood that we had rights, and that our precarious situation did not give people the right to hit us, to take our money, to snatch our goods, or to cut our wages. And we understood we should be allowed to rest, to play, and to participate in other activities with groups like ours. We began to invite other children from the market to join us. We started holding meetings on Sundays, during which we talked about our week and planned activities to promote respect and consideration for the children of the market.

At the market we were always mistaken for thieves, so with the help of the AMWCY we had shirts made that identified us as workers. When one of us had problems with our boss, our group was present and ready to intervene. We did our best to ensure that he or she was not harassed or abused, and that his or her rights were respected. We did the same when it came to problems with customers or conflicts over contracts.

For many children, work is not a choice. It is an obligation to provide for precious and urgent needs.

All these activities and dynamics reduced our vulnerability and improved our working conditions. We secured a right to rest. We had fun, and participated in larger activities with other groups of children. People in the neighbourhood started to respect us. They stopped treating us badly because of the power of our group and because we knew our rights.

Our organised group of working children became our daily and permanent protection.

As an active member of my group, we did a lot of child protection activities with other groups of working children and people from the AMWCY. We also held discussion sessions about our personal projects. Mine was to go back to school, so I left the market for a job selling sand. This allowed me to work during the day and to go to school in the evening without being too exhausted. I had changed my dream from having a large luggage rack to finishing my studies by doing a light and limited job. Gradually I returned to the normal school course, only this time adapted to accommodate the work I was doing. I became a leader in my neighbourhood and in the market. Above all, I became a role model for the other children.

Support us rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves

Being a working child in Cameroon, either in the city or village, is like having a defect. It effectively disqualifies you from basic social services, community consideration, and participation in community affairs. This exclusion is not because state services and structures are explicitly unwilling to take care of working children, but because the access requirements do not take into account the specific situation of working children.

For example, friends of ours who lived in the same neighbourhood, but who went to school, received books and leaflets on children's rights. We children in the market and in other workplaces received nothing, even though our rights were the ones being violated by our bosses and our customers. Indeed, it’s unlikely they were even aware that we had rights to violate. This de facto exclusion happens a lot with projects involving children.

For many children, work is not a choice. It is an obligation to provide for precious and urgent needs, or even for survival. When I was a child worker, having the opportunity to go to school and having access to schoolbooks and bags was not the right solution for my situation. In that moment my overriding need was to provide food to support our household, and to do that I had to give up this form of classical schooling that was not adequate for me. The same is true for many other children in Cameroon and around the world. Work plays a huge role in the survival of the family and the future of the child. Rather than ignoring that reality, it is important to include working children within our protection strategies and provide adequate solutions to their situations.

Supporting groups of organised working children is a vital strategy for increasing their protection. These groups offer working children a space for daily dialogue, reflection, and for building their future. They also make it more likely that their members and their rights will be respected. Under the right conditions, the permanent protection offered by a group even makes it possible for working children to grow.

Translated out of French by Edward van Daalen.

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