Child labour: 3 Million minors locked up

BY: Timothy Ngnenbe & Mohammed Fugu
Some children returning from a fishing expedition
Some children returning from a fishing expedition

The traffic lights are meant to regulate the movement of vehicles and maintain order at road intersections, but for 13-year-old Razak, who makes his livelihood on the streets of Accra, anytime the traffic lights turn red, it is an invitation to hawk.

He meanders his way through vehicles with brisk walks down the white lines that divide two highway lanes and when the traffic light turns green, he darts off to the sidewalks still flashing his wares ranging from pocket-sized notebooks, nose masks, shoe polish, to beverages.

He has perfected the art of marketing his merchandise so well that he is able to catch the attention of occupants of taxis, minibuses (trotros) and private vehicles to patronise them.

Twelve-year-old class six pupil, Joel Agyei, also jostles between a car repair shop and school on daily basis. On many occasions, he has been seen at a car repair shop close to the Mataheko Police Quarters in Accra.

A pupil of a public basic school (name withheld), Joel spends his entire weekend in the fitting shop pumping lorry tyres, lifting heavy vehicle parts, and fixing parts of vehicles and on weekdays, he works from 3 p.m. to about 9 p.m.

“I work here because I have to make some money to buy basic needs. I get tired and sleep in class during lessons, but I have no option,” he told the Daily Graphic.

Locked up

According to estimates by UNICEF, children like Razak and Joel number over three million and account for 21.8 per cent of the 14.2 million children under 18.

These children find themselves locked up in the jaws of child labour in the country according to current estimates, in spite of the global call on countries to take steps to end the menace and a provision in Section 96 of the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560), which mandates metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs) to enforce the laws on child labour.

While their counterparts, particularly in the advanced world, build their future in school, some of these children break their backs on cocoa farms, illegal mining and quarry sites, landing beaches, the streets of Accra and other cities.

Others have traded places with their parents and guardians, becoming the breadwinners instead of the other way round, as they engage in jobs that weigh them down physically and emotionally.

While Section 88 of the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560) prohibits night work and long hours of work for children, many children are caught in that web, nonetheless.

Northern Ghana

For instance, an assessment of the child labour situation in northern Ghana, by the Daily Graphic showed that in many rural communities in the five regions in the north (Northern, North-East, Savannah, Upper East and Upper West), the menace was rife.

Children are forced to engage in various forms of life-threatening labour for survival and to help feed their families. While some parents use their children of school-going age as farm labour, others send them to the cities to engage in petty trading and head porterage, popularly called “kayayoo” meaning a female porter and “kayayei” for female porters.

On a daily basis, an overwhelming number of children between the ages of five and 10 years, most of whom are from the villages, are found hawking on the streets of the Tamale metropolis, Wa and Bolgatanga municipalities.

During a recent visit to the North East Region, the Daily Graphic team chanced on Ayisha Mahama, a 13-year-old girl and her four siblings, whose ages range from four to 10 years, working on a four-acre farmland as labourers.

According to Ayisha, they worked on people’s farms as labourers to raise some money to feed their families. “Our parents do not have money to take care of us, so we work to survive,” she said.

For Rafia Musah, an eight-year-old girl who hawks on the streets of Tamale, she works to help provide for her grandmother.

“I live with my grandmother; and she is very old, so I sell sachet water every day so that I can raise some money for her to feed on, because of that I have stopped schooling,” she said.

The case of 10-year-old Khadija Sulemana is not any different. "I sell water and drinks to get some money to assist my parents. They say I should not come back home without selling everything," she said.

In 2017, the Tamale Metropolitan Assembly launched an operation to arrest and rescue all children of school-going age from the streets but the operation could not be sustained because of agitations and political interferences.

National efforts

However, the Head of the Child Labour Unit at the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations (MELR), Mrs Elizabeth Akabombire, said the ministry had collaborated with key stakeholders to tackle the child labour menace from four angles – prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership.

She noted that the prevention arm of the strategy focused on sensitisation of the public on the dangers of child labour and building the capacity of major actors on how to tackle the menace.

In terms of protection, she said the Labour Department of the MELR had been doing routine inspections at organisations to ensure that child labour was not allowed to fester.

Mrs Akabombire added that through stakeholder collaborations and partnerships, some perpetrators of the worst forms of child labour such as child trafficking, sexual exploitation and drug peddling have been prosecuted.

“We work in partnership with local and international donors to protect children from child labour. The police and other agencies take up the issues and enforce sanctions,” she said.

Inadequate funding

She, however, said inadequate funding remained one of the greatest challenges to efforts being made to curb child labour. “For some years now, the child labour unit of the MELR has had no budget to work. The budget is usually a composite one, so we do not have funds to work with; and this has affected monitoring.

It is only recently that the ministry started giving the unit some budget to hold our committee meetings,” she said.

Education Ministry

The Ministry of Education last Monday reiterated its position for teachers to stop the practice of sending children to work on their farms.

The ministry directed the Ghana Education Service (GES) to put in place the right measures to ensure that the practice of teachers engaging pupils in any form of child labour became a thing of the past.

A Deputy Minister of Education, Rev. John Ntim Fordjour, who communicated the directive, said he was not happy that teachers who had been tasked to teach pupils rather engaged the pupils in activities contrary to their mandate.

The Deputy Education Minister gave the directive when he led a government delegation to commiserate with the families of the nine students who got drowned while crossing the Oti River after they had been sent to work on their headmaster’s farm.

The victims were among 31 students of the school who had allegedly gone to work on their headmaster, Emmanuel Chinja's farm and got drowned while returning home in batches.

The nine were in one of the two boats the children were on, while 21 of them swam to safety.

The Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers in Ghana defines labour as the exploitative use of a pupil/student if it deprives him/her of education, leisure or development.

Therefore no teacher shall subject a pupil/student to any form of exploitative labour, a teacher shall not use the labour of a pupil/student in any form whatsoever, with or without the consent of the parent, during contact hours and a teacher shall not send a child on errands for him/her during contact hours, among others.

The exploitative activities that teachers shall not engage pupils/students in shall include but not be limited to: selling or trading in items, weeding, farming, carrying of water, sand, stone and blocks or doing household chores.

What is child labour?

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138, 182 and the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560), child labour is work performed by a person below the age of 18 years, which deprives the person of the basic human rights, and is abusive, hazardous, exploitative and harmful to the health, safety and development of the child.

Section 89 of Act 560 provides for specific age groupings for admission to various categories of work, including 13 years for light work; 15 years for employment in normal work and above 18 years for hazardous work.

Section 88 of Act 560 prohibits night work from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for children. It also prohibits long hours of work for children by indicating that during school days, children should not work for more than two hours after school, and on non-school days, not more than three hours.

The ILO also frowns on hazardous work, defined in Article 3(d) of ILO C.182 as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances under which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.” In effect, work is hazardous when it poses danger to the health, safety or morals of a person.

Some of the hazardous works, as listed in Section 91(2-3) of Act 560, include going to sea or fishing; mining and quarrying; porterage of heavy loads; manufacturing industries where chemicals are produced or used; work in places where machines are used; and work in places such as in bars, hotels and places of entertainment where a person may be exposed to immoral behaviours.

Rigid legal regime

There is a rigid legal regime to guard against child labour in Ghana and the world at large. In Ghana, some of the legal frameworks include the 1992 Republican Constitution; the Children’s Act 1998 (Act 560); the Human Trafficking Act 2005, (Act 694); the Domestic Violence Act 2007 (Act 732); the Labour Act 2003 (Act 651); the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act [Act 554 of 1998]; the Minerals and Mining Act 2006, (Act 703) and the Child Rights Regulations 2002 (L.I. 1705).

Ugly statistics

Although these legal frameworks are meant to protect children from labour, the ILO estimates that a staggering 152 million children worldwide are still involved in child labour.

Roughly 71 per cent of the child labourers work in agriculture, where they get exhausted with long hours of work in the hot sun.

This problem is particularly acute in Africa, where nearly 72.1 million of the child labourers are found, mostly in the agriculture sector, the ILO points out.

In Ghana, it is estimated that 21.8 per cent of children are child labourers. With the provisional figures of the 2020 Population and Housing Census (PHC) putting the population below 18 years at about 14.2 million, it means that more than three million children are caught in the web of child labour.

According to the Ghana Living Standards Survey Round Six (GLSS 6, 2013/14), 77 per cent of child labourers are in the agriculture sector; 12.4 per cent in wholesale and retail trade; 3.8 per cent in the manufacturing; and 3.2 per cent in accommodation and food service.

Also, 0.7 per cent of child labour is in the construction sector; 0.4 in the transport and storage sector, with 0.3 per cent found in the mining industry, while others activities constitute 1.9 per cent.

Reality on ground

These figures do not merely look scary, but the reality on the ground is that child labour continues to consume many children in Ghana, robbing them of their future.

Until the relocation of the Agbogbloshie scrap line in August, this year, the place was one of the hotspots for extreme forms of child labour in the country. Visits to this scrap enclave over a three-year period (2018 to 2021) revealed how children, as young as seven years, were actively involved in the scrap metal business.

On one of the visits to the area on November 29, 2020, 11-year-old Sumaila Abdul-Rahman and his friends were seen neck-deep in the extraction of ferrous metals from electronic waste. They looked hungry, weak, pale and malnourished.

Armed with hammers and other tools, they engaged in the energy-draining activity of striking out useful matter such as copper, iron, steel from scrap metal.

With all the strength they could muster from their feeble arms, they lifted spoilt fridges, television sets, parts of vehicles and other e-waste from one point to the other. They did this without wearing any protective gear such as helmets, boots, gloves or goggles.

Global efforts

As part of global efforts to stem the tide of child labour, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously declared 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.

The main aim of that initiative is to urge governments to do what was necessary to achieve target 8.7 of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Target 8.7 asks UN member states to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 to end child labour in all its forms.”

Way forward

Touching on the way forward to completely eliminate child labour, the Head of the Child Labour Unit at the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations, Mrs Akabombire said the ministry was currently reviewing the National Plan of Action for Elimination of Child Labour and developing protocols and guidelines for child labour free zones.

Additionally, she said the ministry was also coming up with a monitoring system for data collection on child labour.

“Going forward, what we are saying is that child labour is a multi-faceted phenomenon and no single agency can do it all by itself. There is, therefore, the need for more collaboration among the key stakeholders to deal with the menace.

Meanwhile, a former official at ILO and consultant on Child labour at the MELR, Mr Emmanuel Kwame, underscored the need for Ghana to double its efforts to reverse the child labour situation.

“As a country, we are making efforts to deal with the child labour menace, yet, we are so far from a significant breakthrough. We need to review our strategies and commit more resources to enforce the laws on child labour,” he said.