SHARJAH // It is 8pm on the Buhairah Corniche and Yassir, aged nine, carries a box packed with bags of nuts he is attempting to sell to those enjoying an evening walk. He and his brother are among a legion of young street vendors trying to help their families survive.
Yassir and Mohammed, 11, also peddle bottled water and chewing gum in the hope of earning a few dirhams.
While local authorities take a dim view of minors who are hawkers, dozens more like them, some in the company of parents and others not, can be found in Sharjah and Ajman plying the same trade. The vendors are a recent and dangerous development that lends itself to child exploitation and abuse, officials have said.
Alarmed by the trend, they are clamping down to prevent the practice expanding or becoming accepted in the eyes of the public.
"We are very strict in trying to find these children and help them in any way we can, so that this illegal practice of forcing children to work does not spread," said Brig Dr Abdullah bin Sahoo, the director general of Sharjah's Department of Naturalisation and Foreign Affairs. "We have in the past had several crackdowns on illegals and found that the children were mostly found working as beggars or rubbish collectors and were children of illegal parents who couldn't find work."
He urged the public to call the department's toll-free number, 80080, if they should find any child working. The same number can be used to report illegals found in their neighbourhoods, he said.
A spokesman for Sharjah Police said they were not aware of the practice and were taking the matter seriously. "If there are any kids doing these sales it is illegal and their parents would be held answerable," he said.
Yassir and Mohammed attend a local charitable school and can work only in the evenings, mostly on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The money they earn goes toward the next meal.
"Sometimes if we have no food at home mum asks us to come on Tuesday or Monday and sell something for food," Mohammed said.
"The good thing is we are earning our food and not begging."
Their bags of nuts are made by their mother while they are at school and she also shops for the rest of what they sell.
When asked about their father, Yassir replies like he is guessing. "He died. No, he went back to our country," he said. His brother is equally mystified, saying "we don't know".
Their earnings are meagre and fluctuate. On a weekend, each of the boys can earn up to Dh60 a day. That can fall as low as Dh20 on a weekday, Mohammed said.
Their plight has not gone unnoticed by passers-by on the corniche. Ali al Khalawaji, a local resident who picked a bottle of water from Mohammed, said he preferred to buy from the young children as a charitable act because they are poor.
"It's not them to blame," he said. "In this world no one has his fate in his hands, not even their parents. The parents and the kids are both not happy about this, but they have no choice."
Imad Mohammed, another resident, would like to see the parents prosecuted. "This is child labour, in black and white," he said. "How dare the parents sit at home and the children work for them. It's not wisdom. They should be taken to court."
The UAE has taken measures against the practice of child labour. It signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1997 and presents periodic reports to the UN detailing the measures taken to protect child rights. The Emirates also ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention No 182 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the elimination of all forms of child labour in 2002.