Wed 30 Apr, 2003 09:58 am
MAY DAY-CENTRAL AMERICA:
More than 1.9 Million Child Workers
Néfer Muñoz - IPS - 4/30/03
More than 1.9 million children in Central America face a serious threat to their chance of obtaining an education and pulling out of the vicious circle of poverty because they have to earn their daily bread.
SAN JOSE, Apr 28 (IPS) - More than 1.9 million children in Central America face a serious threat to their chance of obtaining an education and pulling out of the vicious circle of poverty because they have to earn their daily bread.
IPS was given exclusive access to the preliminary results of a study being carried out by the International Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour (IPEC), which found that 16.2 percent of the nearly 12 million children between the ages of five and 17 in Central America currently work.
The phenomenon of child labour helps perpetuate under- development, and creates a breeding-ground for dramatic social conflicts that could erupt in the not-so-distant future, warned experts consulted by IPS.
''What we are doing to the children of Central America harms their present and will have an enormous impact on their future,'' said researcher María Luisa Rodríguez of IPEC, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) programme.
The preliminary results indicate that there are 1.94 million children aged five to 17 working -- and often not attending school -- in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
Moreover, most of the children who work are assisting their parents, and receive no pay themselves, said Rodríguez.
The study forms part of the ILO programme on statistics and follow-up on child labour, and the final results for Central America will be published in 2004.
Close to half of the child workers were found in Guatemala (937,530), while the country with the smallest absolute number of child labourers was the tiny Belize (8,582).
Guatemala, a country of 12 million, has the largest population in Central America, followed by El Salvador (6.2 million), Honduras (6 million), Nicaragua (5 million), Costa Rica (3.8 million), Panama (2.7 million), and Belize (250,000).
Minors in Central American mainly work in agriculture or as street vendors. Others are involved in the services and manufacturing sectors.
''This is extremely dangerous for the region, because the rights to dignified development and health of these children are being violated,'' United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) adviser María Conde pointed out to IPS, when she was informed of the new statistics.
Although many child workers also attend school, work tends to take priority over education as they grow older.
In Belize, 18 percent of working five to 14-year-olds are not in school, while the proportion stands at 21 percent in Costa Rica, 32 percent in El Salvador, 34 percent in Honduras, 37 percent in Panama, 40 percent in Nicaragua and 41 percent in Guatemala.
Children who begin to work at a young age and drop out of school tend to reach the upper limit of their vocational possibilities at a very young age, which often leads to an accumulation of social discontent and temptations to turn to crime, noted Conde.
''Last decade, we saw that poverty had a woman's face. And in this new decade, we are clearly observing that now poverty has a child's face,'' said Conde, who works at the UNICEF office for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Panama.
In Costa Rica, 15 public figures from the fields of science, sports, music, religion and politics said they would sign a statement against child labour next Friday.
Among the signatories will be former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Oscar Arias, Costa Rican-American astronaut Franklin Chang, and classical music composer Benjamín Gutiérrez.
''Work is not tiring, but sometimes it's a little bit boring,'' said Jorge Luis Cerdas, who is small for his age and looks much younger than his 16 years.
Cerdas said he began to work when he was 11, and only completed primary school before dedicating himself full-time to helping his father at their vegetable and fruit cart.
''My biggest dream? To have a vegetable and fruit stall in the market. I don't like having to move around all the time,'' said Cerdas, who works under the scorching tropical sun from seven in the morning to six in the evening.
The boyish adolescent in slightly shabby clothes parks his cart Monday through Friday in downtown Cartago, a city located 22 kms east of San Jose.
Under his father's gaze, Cerdas told IPS that his 15-year-old sister had also dropped out of school, and that his younger brother, 11, was the only one who still attended class.
Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say the governments of Central America and programmes like IPEC do not do enough to attack the causes of child labour.
''It seems to me that small parts of the fire are put out, but the real causes of the fire are not attacked,'' said Virginia Murillo, executive president of the Costa Rican section of Defence of Children International (DCI), who added that that only a small fraction of child workers in the region receive any kind of support.
The activist told IPS that governments in the region should show a greater interest in reducing poverty and increasing the quality of education.
DCI, an international child advocacy organisation, warns that many child workers in the region are exposed to toxic pesticides, work long days, and carry loads that are too heavy for their age. Young street vendors, meanwhile, are at risk of traffic accidents and abuse and mistreatment by adults.
The Commission for the Defence of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA) has also expressed concern over the phenomenon of child labour.
According to the non-governmental rights organisation, the situation of child workers reflects the precarious social conditions in Central America, which, paradoxically, have worsened since the Cold War-era armed conflicts that plagued the region came to an end.
Child labour is just one more demonstration of how economic, social and cultural rights are constantly violated in this region, said CODEHUCA general coordinator Daniel Camacho.
One defect of this article is that it puts all Central American countries in the same basket.
The poverty level is relatively low in Costa Rica, and highest in Nicaragua. But income distribution is worst in Guatemala.
You can bet your life the problem will be tackled first in Costa Rica. And I bet Guatemala will be last.