Child labour on the rise

HARARE, 24 February 2012 (IRIN) - Widespread poverty, a lack of social services and poor enforcement of legislation are hindering efforts to eradicate child labour in Zimbabwe.

According to a 2010 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, 13 percent of Zimbabwean children are engaged in child labour which the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful to children and that interferes with their schooling. In the capital, Harare, the figure is closer to 20 percent, according to Pascal Masocha, national coordinator of the Coalition against Child Labour in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s Labour Act prohibits employers from hiring a person under 18 to perform hazardous work and the Children’s Act makes it an offence to exploit children through employment. However, a 2011 US Department of Labour report on the worst forms of child labour found that these laws were poorly enforced by inspectors who had no special training or resources to address the issue.

"To date, there have been no investigations or arrests in Zimbabwe for violations related to child labour," note the authors.

A study of child labour in Zimbabwe conducted by the Ministry of Labour together with international and local partners including ILO and UNICEF, released in June 2011, concluded that “the prevalence of the worst forms of child labour is on the rise and cause for concern." The report identified poverty as the main driver of children being employed, along with “the breakdown of the family unit due to HIV and AIDS, as well as the inadequacy of the social services delivery system.”

According to UNICEF, of Zimbabwe's 1.3 million orphans, some 100,000 are living on their own in child-headed households. Many such children are forced to leave school and find work as street vendors or labourers on tobacco farms, tea and sugar plantations, and in mines in order to support younger siblings.

Conditions for children working on farms were "particularly difficult", according to the report, as children were often exposed to bad weather, dangerous chemicals and the use of heavy machinery.

The report added that the incidence of child labour would continue to increase “should the socio-economic situation in the country remain challenging for the majority of the people”, and recommended that the Social Welfare Ministry establish a child labour unit and include child rights topics in school curriculums.

Government’s commitment questioned

The government, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the Employers’ Confederation of Zimbabwe (EMCOZ) are part of a national steering committee on child labour which is responsible for implementing a national action plan.

Paurina Mupariwa, the labour and social welfare minister, told IRIN that the government had "a cocktail of interventions to address the problem", including programmes such as the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM), which aims to keep children in school by assisting poor families with school and examination fees.

“It is clear that one of the major reasons why children are forced to go and work as labourers is the inability of their parents or guardians to pay school fees," she said.

However, according to ZCTU’s Fiona Magaya, who is the organization’s focal point on the steering committee, the government has shown little commitment to fighting child labour, forcing her organization and EMCOZ to adopt their own measures.

“Government has let us down. Under our tripartite arrangement, it is supposed to source funds for the anti-child labour programme, but it has done nothing, forcing us and EMCOZ to do our own campaigns with support from the ILO,” she said.

The labour body has produced a manual and posters on child labour which will be distributed to workers and employers in sectors where child labour is prevalent, as well as to civil society organizations. The manual describes the worst forms of child labour, national legislation, ILO, UN and Southern Africa Development Community conventions and the role of trade unions in fighting the problem.

Economic crisis

John Robertson, a Harare-based economic consultant, said Zimbabwe's protracted economic crisis had hamstrung the government's capacity to combat child labour.

“There is no money to fund vital programmes in the labour sector because the government is living from hand-to-mouth and there is donor fatigue. There is need to resuscitate the economy first and create employment if the issue of child labour is to be addressed meaningfully,” Robertson told IRIN.

Gertrude Shumba, deputy director of Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT), an NGO fighting child labour on farms, tea estates and plantations in Manicaland Province since 2009, agreed that “the major constraint is the economy".

FACT has involved local traditional, church and government leaders in campaigns to educate communities about the problems associated with child labour.

“Communities now understand what child labour is and know that it is undesirable, especially as it keeps children out of school,” Shumba told IRIN. “But for as long as households have poor and unreliable sources of income, and there are many child-headed families and a dependency on cheap labour, it will be difficult to eliminate the problem.”