Child labor: the shame of Trinidad and Tobago!

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines child labor as work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work. Such work is considered harmful to the child and should therefore be eliminated. There remains no official statistics on the magnitude of child labor in T&T. However, rapid assessment studies conducted by the International Labor Organization, (ILO), in 2002, uncovered some alarming facts.

Children were found to be engaged, in what the ILO considers to be the worst forms of child labor —agriculture, scavenging, domestic work and commercial sexual activity. Additionally, all child laborers, except those engaged in commercial sexual activity, worked long hours on a daily basis, for meager remuneration.

A Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey of T&T, carried out by UNICEF in 2000, found that an estimated 4.1 per cent of children in Trinidad were involved in child labor. UNICEF also revealed that 158 million children (5-14) are engaged in child labor worldwide. These children are everywhere, yet they remain invisible.

Swept under the rug
Experts advise that children living in the poorest households and in rural areas are most likely to engage in child labor. Delisa Lewis, Financial Development and Communications Officer, YMCA, agrees. A study conducted by the YMCA, in conjunction with the 2002 ILO survey, revealed some hideous truths. The study concentrated on the Beetham and Sealots area.

“We found that children in these areas, living in poverty and single household families were forced to work because of the high cost of living. They work on the landfills and sell their bodies for money.” Lewis says the YMCA took a proactive approach, enrolling several of the children, between the ages of three—14, at the All-In-One Center—a rehabilitative educational center in the community.

She asserts that the relevant authorities need to do more to deal the problem. “We need proper monitoring systems in schools so teachers know when a child is absent. Government needs to do more. People see children on the road and do nothing. This is not the right of the child. Children should have the right to have fun, to learn, play and investigate.”

Nobody cares
Judy Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Rainbow Rescue echoes similar sentiments. She says the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the problem. “With poverty, money would be more important than an education. This is where the authorities come in,” she says. “If we are seeing them, the people in charge are seeing them. It seems as though everyone has given up on our children. Does anybody care?”

Labor Minister: We are trying
Labor Minister Rennie Dumas agrees that child labour in T&T is cause for concern. A survey conducted three years ago fortifies this view. Dumas says his ministry continues to partner with the Ministry of Social Development and various NGOs to eliminate child labor. “We found about 35 children living on the streets and found homes for about half of them.

Those we could not find guardians for were put in children homes. The reality is, some of them found themselves back on the streets.”
Dumas says in cases of exploitative labor, some responsibility must fall on the parents. “Parents should encourage maximum time in school. It’s certainly not appropriate for children to work in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.”

Poverty: A Major Factor
Times are hard, and by the looks of it—getting harder. Some parents argue that they are forced to take their children out of school early, due to the increasing cost of living. Susan, 35, (not real name), is one such parent. She ekes out a living by selling snacks and juices in Port-of -Spain. Her children, ages, 12 and 14 sometimes accompany her—even on school days.

“I can’t afford to send them to school everyday, so on some days they help me out here,” she says, pointing to the small cart at the side of the road. “I am a single parent. Uniforms and books are expensive. People should not judge. Life is hard.” Susan is not alone. There are scores of other mothers with similar situations in T&T. The question is, what are we doing about it?