'They study but there’s no work': Lebanon’s economic crisis pushes children out of school

The country's soaring poverty has increased child labour, including in dangerous types of work

As Lebanon's economic crisis pushes more families into poverty, children are being put to work in sometimes dangerous jobs. AFP
As Lebanon's economic crisis pushes more families into poverty, children are being put to work in sometimes dangerous jobs. AFP

Last December, 15-year-old Yahya left school to help his father in his small car repair shop in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-biggest city.

“It’s temporary,” he told The National on a hot summer afternoon after work. But his father, who stopped his own education when he was 12 years old, does not agree. “Children who leave school don’t go back,” Abu Taleb said.

After a brief silence, he softened. “It depends. If I can support him, he’ll go back,” he said.

There is little chance that Yahya will return to school to study his favourite subject, Arabic literature, or any other. Poverty increases child labour, and living conditions in Lebanon are expected to worsen as its economic crisis deepens. Local officials say that the World Bank’s prediction that half of Lebanese would be under the poverty line by the end of the year has already materialised. It defines the poverty line as those who cannot afford to pay for all of their food, accommodation, education and health needs.

“Today, people steal cars, motorbikes and batteries to sell them to buy food,” said Abu Taleb. Yahya's family lives in Bab Al Tabbaneh, a majority Sunni Muslim area of the city famous for a decade-old conflict with a nearby Alawite neighbourhood that picked up again with the Syrian civil war in 2011.

“A boy who works can look after himself, pay his phone bills. Otherwise, what would he do? Steal?” asked Abu Taleb.

His eldest son, 25-year-old Taleb, rummages through rubbish to find plastic to sell, despite holding a baccalaureate. “He’s an engineer of the streets,” laughed Abu Taleb, 50, who combines two jobs to support his wife and five sons. “They study, study, study and there’s no work,” he complained.

In the morning, Abu Taleb runs his shop with Yahya, and in the afternoon, he works at a local rubbish collection company, where he is paid a monthly salary of 850,000 Lebanese pounds, now worth a little over $100 (Dh367) on the black market as the local currency keeps falling.

Because of the crisis, he has not been paid in two months.

Lebanon's public services have always been weak, but they have become practically non-existent since the government defaulted on its debt for the first time in March. Electricity supply is limited to only a few hours a day because of a fuel shortage and private generator owners cannot keep up with the demand.

“Even if Yahya wanted to read and write, how could he see? Candles cost 2,000 Lebanese pounds each," complained Abu Taleb.

There are no recent statistics on child labour in Lebanon, but the UK-based international NGO Save the Children registered an increase in child labour between February, when Covid-19 hit Lebanon, and July – when confinement measures eased up.

The NGO noted a 55 per cent surge in families reporting that one of their children work and a 25 per cent increase in child labour referrals from other agencies in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, where it operates.

“Needless to say, this is because we are in a desperately bad situation economically and poverty is increasing at a very dramatic rate,” said Martha Reggiori-Wilkes, programme development and quality director at Save the Children.

“We noticed an increase in work that exposes children to extreme risk, whether in agriculture or in factories, where children have to manipulate heavy machinery.”

Ms Reggiori-Wilkes said the group has also seen a small increase in the number of girls working.

“They are normally less visible, but we see them more in other types of work, including in the streets,” she said.

The practice of child labour is illegal in Lebanon. Children are only allowed to begin light work at 14 years old and are banned from dangerous work, including in quarries or in the streets. Additionally, the Ministry of Health must issue a medical certificate ensuring that the child is physically and mentally fit to perform the job, according to Unicef.

Unicef’s figures show that the number of Lebanese children involved in child labour had already tripled between 2009 and 2016 because of growing poverty. At the time, Unicef estimated that 6 per cent of Lebanese children worked. Figures are expected to be higher because parents are often reluctant to admit that they put their children to work, said Ms Reggiori-Wilkes.

For children like Yahya, bringing money home in times of financial difficulty can be a source of pride. “Of course, I want to help,” he said. “My father and mother are in need. I give them the money I make.”

A huge FC Barcelona fan, Yahya is a shy teenager with a soft voice who only wears sports clothes and dreams of becoming a professional football player like his older brother Taha, 19, who briefly played in Qatar and now plays for the Lebanese army. “I’d make a lot of money to support my family,” he said.

He has little hope of finding work in Bab Al Tabbaneh. “You need wasta,” said Yahya, referring to the local word for the widespread usage of personal connections or bribery to secure a service. Thirteen years ago, his father became a rubbish collector through wasta.

“If I finished school but couldn’t find work, my certificate would only serve to decorate my wall.”

Updated: July 23, 2020 03:16 PM

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