Just a few days after the beginning of the new school term in Baghdad and Mohammed Ali dropped out. He is 12. His father was killed in a bombing in the city a few months ago and now as the eldest of three sons he feels adult responsibility weighing heavily upon him.
"I just had to search for a job, any job, in order to bring food to my brothers and to my mother who is taking care of them,” says Ali, who NIQASH met on the street. “I will never let her go out to search for a job as long as I am there for her."
After I have enough money for my father’s medicines I can go back to school,” the 10-year-old says optimistically.
Ali is sweating and he wears ragged clothing. He works as a porter and carries building materials, rocks and other heavy items around the city. He leaves home at sunrise and returns at sunset, eats just one meal a day that costs him about IQD1,000 (US$0.83) and gives the rest of his daily wages, IQD15,000 (around US$12) to his mother for housekeeping. He makes sure that his younger brothers are doing all right and he sleeps next to them in the same bed before getting up the next day to go out and do the same all over again.
Ali is just one of many underage labourers in Iraq. The number of child workers has increased significantly since 2003. Last year the United Nations children’s’ agency, UNICEF, said that more than half a million Iraqi children are thought to be working rather than at school. A lot of those cases are due to violence or displacement, as in Ali’s situation. Iraq’s own Ministry of Planning has higher numbers, saying that about one in five children, aged mostly between five and 14, work to support their families and themselves.
Iraqi law says that employees should not be younger than 15 and Article 29 of the Iraqi constitution guarantees the protection of mothers and children. “Economic exploitation of children in all of its forms shall be prohibited, and the State shall take the necessary measures for their protection,” it says.
However, as is often the case in Iraq, legislation with the best of intentions is not always realised.
Haider is not yet 10 years old but he has been working at a blacksmith shop in Baghdad for the past nine months. His father is ill, he says, so he has to earn money to buy medicine and support the family with his wages.
As he talks, Haider is hiding a burn on his hand and carrying a hammer that looks as though it weighs more than him. The owner of the store gave him IQD10,000 (around US$8) to buy medicine for the burn but still the wound is not healing very fast.
“It’s hard for me to watch my friends all going to school,” he admits. “But I have no choice.” In fact he says he would like to work more hours and earn more money. “After I have enough money for my father’s medicines I can go back to school,” he says optimistically.
Another boy NIQASH meets, Samir, has never gone to school. His father died three years ago when he was five years old and ever since then he has been working with his older brother as a carpenter to earn money for the family. He makes about IQD300,000 (around US$250) a month and he pays much of that as rent for the house where he lives with his brother, three sisters and their ill mother.
“The reason there is so much more child labour is due to the kinds of conditions in which Iraqis in poverty live,” says Abdul Zahra al-Hindawi, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Planning. Almost a quarter of Iraqi families live in poverty, he adds.
The Ministry has drawn up plans to try and reduce poverty and child labour, al-Hindawi notes.
Iraq’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is also trying to work out how to prevent children under 15 from working. “A special team has been formed to eradicate this phenomenon and among other measures, they have identified certain areas where children are more likely to be working,” a spokesperson for the Ministry, Ammar Menem Ali, told NIQASH.
Taha Mahmoud, who heads this special division, says that firstly employers are given a warning. Then if there is noncompliance, they are taken to the labour courts who issue verdicts against them.
The Ministry of the Interior also has community policing teams working to fight to prevent underage workers, even though they take a slightly more relaxed attitude.
“The ministry teams are working in stages on this file,” says Khaled al-Muhanna, who heads the community police department. “Sometimes children of a certain age are allowed to work because they help solve the problems of poverty in Iraq. But the ministry’s teams certainly penalize the employers who operate hazardous workplaces and employ minors. Sometimes our teams take custody of the children whose parents have allowed them to do such dangerous work.”