Working the Fields: The Painful Price of Child Labor in Agriculture

2018-10-10    |   

Working the Fields: The Painful Price of Child Labor in Agriculture

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 60% of children working worldwide are employed in agriculture — despite an ILO agreement classifying agriculture as hazardous work forbidden to anyone under the age of 18. According to figures from the 2014 National Action Plan to Eliminate Child Labor in Lebanon, there are more than 100,000 child laborers in the country, the majority of whom (60-70%) are working in agriculture. Given that this figure predates the Syrian crisis, some believe that it does not reflect current realities. While Lebanon lacks accurate figures on the extent of child labor, both generally speaking and in agriculture specifically, a study produced by the FAO, UNICEF, and the ILO concluded that children made up 30% of the agricultural workforce in Lebanon. Some of the report’s data came from closed working sessions; it relied on a sample of 400 Lebanese and Syrians.

Decree 8987, issued in September 2012 and based on international agreements, banned child labor in agriculture in Lebanon on the basis that it is hazardous.[1] Yet, what is being said in ministry offices and among international and local organizations that are active in the fight against child labor is a far cry from what is happening out in the fields of Lebanon. Particularly in the plains of Akkar and the Beqaa Valley, where the fields are crowded with child workers, some as young as five years old. They work five-hour shifts in the morning and a second shift in the evening.

Out in the fields, there are no protective measures for warding off the heat of the summer sun or the residue of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and nothing regulates the amount of weight borne on the workers’ young backs. Then there is the  shawish [broker]  between employers and laborers. Not only does he take a portion of workers’ earnings in exchange for securing them work and arranging a place for their tents; his authority over the workers is clear and unambiguous. The public relations official in the Farmer’s Union confirmed to The Legal Agenda that a broker who supplies 100 workers a day earns at least US$400 per day. For children’s labor, he takes a fifty percent cut: he claims LL8,000 [US$5] in wages for each five-hour shift, of which he gives each child only LL4,000 [US$2.50]

The Legal Agenda spent several days with child laborers in Akkar and Beqaa, returning with vignettes full of suffering that highlight the harsh working conditions of children subjected to forced labor.


It’s midday outside one of the villages on the agricultural plain of Akkar — specifically, in one of the Syrian refugee camps there. The pickup truck arrives, crowded with covered heads and faces; nothing is showing but beautiful eyes. They are young female workers returning from a morning shift of agricultural work.

The shawish comes out of his tent by the entrance of the camp. He is a young man in his mid-twenties with two mobile phones in his hand. His power is evident from the movements of his body, his tone of voice, and the way those around him behave towards him. He walks around like a peacock, trailed by a number of young men and boys. The driver of the pickup orders the workers not to exit the vehicle until the shawish gives the signal. The shawish stands on the corner of the pickup truck and says, “Let’s go, everyone get off.” And the counting begins: one, two, three, four…until he reaches twenty. He turns to the driver of the pickup and says, “God be with you: they’re all here, every one.”

The workers are aged 13 and up. During this shift, they were weeding — removing unwanted plants from various agricultural fields. According to the shawish, the owner of the land had asked him not to send any child workers “that will stomp around this season.”

Each worker receives LL1500-2000 (US$1.00-$1.30) per hour of work, depending on the type of field. The shawish takes his share of LL500 (US$0.33) for each hour — that is, a third of what each child worker earns. For these workers, there is no work to be had unless the broker wishes it. “He arranges the work for us,” says an adolescent girl in a faint voice.


From Akkar to Beqaa: Suffering Itself

The scene is different at another camp, in Beqaa, when the red Mercedes arrives at dawn. The sun’s rays have not yet appeared when the car horn sounds, announcing that it is time for young workers of both genders to gather. It is potato season.

Here the employer prefers child laborers. He selects children from the roadside camp as young as 5 or 6 years old, and no older than 13 or 14. According to the broker, gathering potatoes from behind a tractor is not difficult work and does not require precision or experience. The boys carry plastic containers shaped like buckets, which can hold 7 to 10 kilograms of potatoes. The girls wrap a piece of cloth called a “shaqaban” around theri waist and hips, holding it against their stomachs to create pockets for gathering the potatoes that lie in the furrows of the field.

Most of the children are visibly sleepy as their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, stand and watch them go out to work. The car usually accommodates five passengers, but the driver takes advantage of the children’s small bodies to stuff ten of them in the front and back seats and put five or six in the trunk. Usually boys sit in the trunk and girls avoid sitting near them; if they do, they take pains to keep a distance between genders, even if it’s only two or three centimeters.

In the potato fields, the tractor is pulled along its path, creating furrows from one end of the field to the other. After it finishes two or three rows, the children spread out along the areas where the ground was plowed to gather the potatoes that have been turned up from the earth. The children work gathering potatoes continuously for a minimum of five hours. During most of this time they must remain bent down while they carry their loads whether in a bucket or a bag or the confining shaqaban. Most of the female workers aged ten and over also wear coverings over their heads and part of their faces. “If a girl’s face gets sunburnt, it could stop someone from marrying her,” says Jawahir, a 16-year-old, whom the shawish assigned the task of packing potatoes into boxes and decorating them with large potatoes for sale.

While these coverings block some of the sun from the heads of the female workers, the heads of the boys and the girls under the age of ten are exposed to the burning heat of the sun. The color of their skin ranges from a burnt red to brown. Basma, age twelve, says she suffers from back pain, but she usually hides the pain to avoid being reprimanded by the agent who oversees their work. “If I don’t go out to work my father yells at me,” she says. Basma’s father does not work because he “doesn’t have his papers,” the young girl explains. But Ali’s mother, a widow who has been raising five children by herself since her husband was killed in the war in Syria, has another opinion. “There are many men who don’t work but send their children and their women out to work.” “Women” here includes young wives who have not given birth: “Yesterday Umm Ahmad asked me to find work for her daughter-in-law Sofia,” says the shawish. Sofia is fifteen years old and has been married exactly a month. After her honeymoon she will go back to the fields. “My parents used to take my money; now my husband does,” she says.


Afternoon Fatigue

These morning scenes change come the afternoon. In one of the Akkar camps, the young female workers do not appear energetic or eager to work the evening shift. No more than two hours have passed since their return from the morning weeding, and yet the time for their second shift has come. The broker sounds a whistle in the camp at 2:30 pm, signaling that transport has arrived. The afternoon sun is still burning, yet the girls hurry to the gathering point at the entrance.

Sarah is not having good luck today. The broker orders her to return to her tent: “the landowner doesn’t want you,” he says to her, adding, “you aren’t working actively, you’re very distracted.” This news is not only upsetting to Sarah’s mother; moments later her father arrives, inquiring about the employer’s refusal to give work to his daughter, who is not even thirteen years old. Sarah’s cheeks redden and tears well up in her eyes as her father gives her a displeased look, as though to threaten her. She tries in vain to convince the broker and the driver to let her join the other girls, to no avail — despite her many promises that she will work hard and diligently. “You don’t know how she works,” the shawish says to those who try to intercede on her behalf.

The car, filled with an adolescent boy and eight girls, sets off towards greenhouses about five kilometers from the camp. At the farm, the landowner’s agent greets the workers, beginning by counting them then ensuring that they do not include those who have been refused work. He asks a woman in her thirties to distribute them among the greenhouses filled with mulukhiyya, a spinach-like plant.

The temperature approaches 35 degrees in the open air. The girls begin to remove the veins from the mulukhiyya leaves and place them in piles, one beside the other. After five minutes, one of them cries out: “It’s so hot in here!,” referring to the rising temperature. Indeed, the temperature inside the greenhouses has risen to perhaps forty degrees celsius. The agent opens the entrance to the greenhouse to let some air in. The tension eases among the girls at work, although there is no telling whether they fall silent out of fear of the agent’s threats or because they have been revived by the light breeze coming through the doorway. The agent calls out, “If you want to be coddled, then don’t come to work,” crushing any protesting voice.


The Children of Arida

Samih, who is from the border village of Arida, located in the Akkari plains, flashes a jaundiced, subdued smile when he hears stories of Syrian children working in agriculture. “You know,” he says, “there are displaced Syrians who sometimes give their aid to the poor of Arida.”

It is true that the inhabitants of Arida, which is located on the coast at the Syrian border, do not live in tents like Syrian refugees do. But given that they receive no aid, food assistance, or sickness benefits, their poverty appears extreme. Their children also do not attend school during the agricultural seasons, or when the village’s nearly 150 fishermen go out to sea with the start of open fishing season. Maryam says that her four sons, the oldest of whom is 13, go out to work with the fishermen during the fishing seasons, “and they return to go to school for just a few hours.”

When the fisherman cannot go out to sea because too much silt and refuse has accumulated at the point where the river, Nahr al-Kabir al-Janouby, meets the sea (their boats are moored at the mouth of the river), the economic situation in Arida becomes critical. Both men and children go out to work gathering the catch of fishermen who come to the Akkari region from elsewhere. They can earn LL5,000 to LL10,000 [USD$3.30 to $6.60] for three or four hours’ work gathering the catch of fishermen who come from Mount Lebanon, Beirut, Koura, and Tripoli. Even the director of the public school in Arida told families: “send them to school, even if they return at 11 o’clock,” according to Maryam. Maryam’s eldest son was 13 when he decided to stop going to school. “We are very poor, and he wants to help us,” his mother explained.


Governmental and International Players

Even as child labor in Lebanon is increasing both in general and in agriculture specifically, “last March (2018) the ministry closed three social centers designated for hosting children during the day,” says Nazha Shalita, president of the Unit for the Combat of Child Labour in Lebanon, which is part of the Ministry of Labor. The centers’ work included “organizing educational and training activities for them, to reduce the risks of employment and children’s exposure to it.” The three ministry-affiliated centers were closed “due to insufficient funds,” Shalita told The Legal Agenda. According to her, “closing a center is better than receiving a child without the ability to protect them.” Shalita also stated that there were 35,000 Lebanese children working, down from the more than 100,000 originally reported in the 2014 National Action Plan to Eliminate Child Labor. And yet according to Hayat Osseyran, an advisor with the International Labor Organization’s Child Labor Unit, the number of 100,000 is an old figure. She told The Legal Agenda that in fact, “the number rose after the Syrian crisis.”

Despite the difficulty of the situation, Shalita noted some positive breakthroughs, such as the joint committee composed of [representatives of] the Ministry of Labor, General Security, the International Labor Organization, and the Lebanese Farmer’s Union. She also pointed out that afterwards, Lebanese General Security had changed an internal memorandum on the entry of seasonal laborers, raising the age of work in agriculture to 16 years. Bahjat Harati, the public relations official in the Farmer’s Union, confirmed to The Legal Agenda the role that the union had played in clarifying to landowning farmers the reality that “child labor hurts us; we pay a broker for adult laborers, and he sends us ten-year-old children. They do more harm than good to our farms and our seasons.”

The union also cooperated with the Ministry of Labor, General Security, and the ILO in amending the General Security memorandum to raise the age of child labor to 16. Harati clarified that “the fundamental violation against children stems from the shawish, who takes LL8,000 [USD$5] from a farmer for a day’s work performed by an adult laborer, then brings a child worker, pays him LL4,000 and pockets the other 4,000.” He also pointed out that a farmer in this situation cannot refuse the child laborers, because a shawish could decline to provide him with any labor at all, “and it would cost us the season.” Harati added that child labor violations on large farms whose landowners use seasonal labor have been disclosed and reported, “and other violations occur in refugee camps, not among those who continue to come from Syria only as seasonal workers.”

The ILO has also contributed to these efforts. “It surprised us that General Security allowed Syrian seasonal agricultural workers to bring children as young as 10 years old into Lebanon, believing that they were merely accompanying their families and not coming to work,” says Osseyran. “General Security assumes responsibility for monitoring child labor, particularly given that we have a shortage of observers — even though Decree 8987/2012 gave the ministry greater legal cover to protect children from agricultural work by classifying it as a hazardous form of labor,” says Shalita. On this subject, Osseyran pointed out that General Security had published reports over the last three years stating that 36 children working illegally in agriculture had been referred to the Ministry of Labor and registered with the ILO. The ministry then sent them to special centers for their protection.

Osseyran draws a connection between mandatory education and age of work: “ILO convention Number 138 states that children should only perform light work until the age of 15, that is, until they have completed their compulsory education.” States that face difficult conditions, including Lebanon, bypass this provision, and “permit work at the age of 14 in exceptional circumstances.” But the [ILO] condition is that children perform light labor for short hours (helping their father in a shop, for example, as the cashier). Some countries, including Lebanon, “do not stipulate light labor, however, work is prohibited under the age of 14, including agricultural work, which we and the Ministry of Labor consider to be hazardous work.”

Shalita and Osseyran observe that the nature of child labor in agriculture has changed with “Syrian displacement, which has intensified the phenomenon of child labor in agriculture, which took place within families or in limited instances of waged work before the Syrian crisis in Lebanon,” according to Shalita.

Osseyran speaks of the exploitation that Syrian children face in agriculture today: “the shawish — the agent of child labor — is the one who benefits; he crams them in a pickup truck, piled atop one another, especially those who live in tents on land that the shawish provides and collects rent for, even as he employs them and their children.” She pointed out that “around 70% of Syrian children work, 60% of them in agriculture.” This work has significant health effects on children, which Osseyran enumerates: “the pesticides and chemical fertilizers affect their sensitive skin and enter their bodies. It causes cancer and concentration deficiencies. Among other things, they are exposed to harsh sun rays, heavy loads, dust, and insects from the fields.”

Rita Kevorkian of the Community-Based Protection Unit of the UNHCR says that the unit’s efforts sometimes lead to saving 300 out of a thousand working children. She expressed her regret that children work from the age of nine years and up. The problem is an old one, she says, that began with Syrian families who would go to Lebanon for agricultural work, and it has become exacerbated with the current crisis; she also highlighted the role that overcrowded schools have played in children leaving for work.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32, and ILO Conventions 138 (2003) on the minimum age for employment and 182 (1999) on the worst forms of child labor

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