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Palestinian Kids Forced To Work

December 12, 1997

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ For nine hours a day, six days a week, 12-year-old Mohammed Jibril stitches buttons as he hunches over a sewing machine. He also sweeps the floor and brews tea.

His daily pay of $1.43 has been the main income for his family of 10 since his father, increasingly disabled by rheumatism, lost his laborer’s job in Israel.

His pink baseball cap cocked sideways, Mohammed has the skinny frame of a boy but the calloused hands of a man. At the end of his work day, he’s too tired to play. The highlight of his week is a Friday soccer game with other boys from the seaside shantytown.

Child labor has always been tolerated, and even encouraged as a rite of maturity, in the Palestinian areas. Every year, poverty and political turmoil force thousands out of school and into jobs.

The International Labor Office, a Geneva-based labor rights agency, contends in a new report that Israel’s prolonged security closures and the resulting economic crisis have driven more Palestinian children into work.

The report cites a variety of sources and anecdotal material in its look at the apparent increase in child labor. It also refers to a U.N. survey of 300 child workers which found that 44 percent started working between May 1994 _ the start of Palestinian autonomy _ and February 1996. During that period, Israel sealed off the strip for 333 days in response to attacks by Islamic militants. The U.N. survey did not give comparative figures.

Closures drive up adult unemployment _ today about 39 percent _ and cost the Palestinian economy $6 million a day in lost trade and wages. In times of economic difficulty, Palestinian employers prefer to hire children _ who will work for wages that are unacceptable to adults.

In times of calm, Israel significantly eases the closure, allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians to return to their jobs. But many restrictions remain: Single men and those less than 27 years old are barred from entering Israel.

Solid figures on child labor are not available. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates at least 18,500 children between the ages of 12 and 16 work, while trade unionists say there could be as many as 55,000, or 11 percent of the labor force.

In the Gaza Strip, where half of the 1 million residents are 15 years old or younger, child workers are everywhere. Young boys drive donkey carts, carry boxes in sweatshops and stir vats of boiling syrup in candy factories.

In the town of Khan Yunis, 13-year-old Ahmed Barbak cleans and serves in his brother Adeeb’s three-table grill for 10 hours a day, after attending school from 7 a.m. to noon.

``I know it’s hard for him but I don’t have the money to pay another worker,″ Adeeb said. ``Business is very slow, and there is no income from the laborers who work in Israel.″

During full closures, when no Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel, Barbak’s restaurant brings in about $8 a day, or what he would have to pay one adult employee.

One of those hurt by the closures is mechanic Nasser Jarada, 27, who ekes out a living in his tiny Gaza City body shop because he can’t get the security clearance to return to work in Israel.

During a recent visit, he was working on the two-week overhaul of a gutted Peugeot, for which he will get $300. Jarada cut labor costs by employing 11-year-old Ala Jaal and his 12-year-old brother, Ramadan, for $3 a week each.

As Jarada welded, Ramadan hammered scrap metal and Ala fetched tools. The boys said their father, who lost his carpenter’s job in Israel, forced them to quit school.

Jarada said he is keeping the boys off the street and teaching them a trade.

Technically, Jarada is breaking the law, but there are only 80 Palestinian labor inspectors, and few wish to intervene and deprive families of badly needed income.

A new labor code being drafted by the Palestinian Authority would raise the minimum age for child workers to 15, from 13 in the West Bank and 12 in Gaza. But it is not clear when the code will become law or how it will be enforced, Deputy Labor Minister Hisham Anabtawi said.

For boys like Mohammed, the 12-year-old tailor’s apprentice, any change is too late. Having dropped out in fourth grade, he’s illiterate and condemned to a life of menial labor like his father, Jibril.

Mohammed wants to eventually run his own sewing factory. And if he ever has children, he wants to keep them in school.

``They should study. God forbid they become like their father,″ he said.

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