'Some die at work': The appalling conditions of Iraq's child labourers
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In Iraq, three million children under the age of 15 have left school to work in factories, garages, bakeries or elsewhere – if they’re not on the streets picking up plastic litter. Our Observer on the ground has filmed the appalling conditions in which these children live.
Hassine Qassim is 28 years old and works as a CCTV operator for a number of factories in the province of Baghdad. While at work he’s able to see first-hand the working conditions of child labourers. On June 14, he published several videos on TikTok to draw attention to the poor working conditions for children working in a brick factory in an industrial complex in the town of Nahrwan in the Baghdad province.
In the videos, we can see very young children piling up bricks from rows hundreds of metres long. A man smoking a cigarette is watching them. They work under a baking hot sun, between mountains of sand and piles of bricks, in dusty, smoky air. Hassine Qassim asks a young girl wearing a hijab and plastic flip-flops how much she earns. “5,000,” she replies [Editor's note: 5,000 Iraqi dinars is equivalent to 2.86 euros]. Her brother and sister, even younger than she is, are lifting bricks alongside her.
This is a typical scene in Iraq, where child labour is very common. During the Covid-19 pandemic, UNICEF warned that, in a country where 11.4 million people were living below the poverty line in 2020, 37% of children are forced to earn money to survive.
'They have no rights, no legal or physical protection'
There are around 400 families who work or who send their children to work in the industrial complex where I filmed the video. They mostly come from the provinces to the south of Baghdad: Basra, Nasiriyah or Al Diwaniyah. These towns are located hundreds of kilometres from Baghdad and so families will come to spend the whole summer here in order to do seasonal work.
Often, the kids stay on site during the summer and go back to their provinces with their families – if they have families – in the winter. For example, the little boy in my video doesn’t have anyone, and so he lives in the industrial complex all year round. Small living quarters are provided for cases like that. Most of these children are between six and 10 years old. They often have to do hard physical work despite how young they are: cutting, baking and carrying bricks, without any protective equipment like hard hats, glasses or gloves.
'This situation suits bosses because they need cheap labor'
This leads to accidents at work. Some die at work [Editor's note: since the beginning of 2021, at least one child has died and six others have been injured while at work, according to UNICEF]. When they’re injured at work, as there’s no hospital or pharmacy in Nahrawan, they have to be taken to Baghdad [56 kilometres away], and they usually die en route. From what I’ve seen, the bosses then settle financial compensation with the family.
Children work in a brickworks in Maysan. Photo published on the page ‘Iraqy Museum’ in June 2019.
This situation suits the bosses because they need cheap labour. The daily rate for children is never more than 5,000 or 7,000 Iraqi dinars [2.87 to 4 euros]. In comparison, an adult worker gets between 25,000 and a maximum of 500,000 dinars a week [14.30 to 286 euros], depending on skillset and tasks. The bosses don’t feel any sense of responsibility towards the children, who have no rights and no legal or physical protection.
A month earlier, on 10 May, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights demanded that the country’s government and parliament ban the practice of child labour, particularly dangerous work like in factories or on building sites. Iraq's law already bans minors under the age of 15 years old from working.
'800,000 children are in the labour market in Iraq'
Ali Al Bayati is a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. He explains :
Child labour in Iraq is a direct result of the crises the country has been going through since 2003: wars, economic crises, the Islamic State group… Many children have lost one or even both of their parents, or are internally displaced, sometimes homeless and left to survive by themselves. Around 3 million children aren’t in school. This makes them an easy target for all types of trafficking, particularly black market labour. Since 2014, 2 to 4% of Iraqi children work – equivalent to 800,000 children in the labour market.
In light of this data, the Iraqi state has no efficient long-term strategy. Iraq signed treaties in 1994 [Editor's note: in particular, Conventions 138 and 182 of the International Labour Organisation, which set out the minimum age for work and the worst forms of work for children], but no national law has been passed or applied. Sometimes the authorities react to the situation as though it were a security issue: they arrest the children and then later let them go. But they have to look at each case separately, and they don’t do that. There are a few NGOs who are trying to help these people, but we’re talking about millions of children, and that’s a figure that’s only rising with the Covid-19 pandemic. The ideal situation would be that the state sets aside social aid for these families and creates jobs for the parents.
According to a UNICEF report published in October 2020, 17 percent of Iraqi families that have been internally displaced have had to send their children to work in order to survive.
The International Labour Organisation put in a place a financial aid programme that is set to end in December 2021. This programme is helping 1,500 children who are at particular risk or have been subject to the worst forms of work, and aims to tackle the entrenched problem of child labour in the country.