Tyrone Reid, Sunday Gleaner Reporter
DESPITE SIGNING on to the International Labour Orga-nisation (ILO) Convention to abolish child labour, Jamaica has done very little to outlaw this age-old practice. Currently, there are no up-to-date statistics on how many children are wage earners, and this is one of several problems hampering relevant government and donor agencies from stepping in to help.
The ILO, last year, using figures obtained from the 2002 national census, estimated that more than 26,000 Jamaican children were working as vendors, agricultural and commercial labourers, domestic helpers, and prostitutes, among other forms of engagement.
"Any child under the age of 15 engaged in activity to feed family or self, or any activity which interrupts a child's social deve-lopment and education is called 'child labour'," as stated in the ILO Convention 138 (C. 138). This treatise obligates countries to fix a minimum age for employment that should not be under the age for completing compulsory schooling. In Jamaica, the legal age for completing school is 16 years, however, the Ministry of Education is working to move this upwards to 18.
Responding to the issues raised in the study, Children's Advocate Mary Clarke said she is particularly concerned about minors who are involved in hidden labour such as the massage sector, financial scams, and drugrunning.
Over the years, many children have been rescued from the clutches of child labour, she said, but there was no telling how many of them had been forced to return because the country lacks a comprehensive mechanism designed to track their progress.
"Sadly, it is true. We don't have a tracking system," Clarke said.
She told The Sunday Gleaner Jamaica is in danger of losing millions of dollars in much-needed funding from the ILO if an up-to-date national survey is not done on child labour, Clarke told The Sunday Gleaner.
The latest survey was done in 2002 by The Statistical Institute of Jamaica, which estimated that some 16,240 children undertook some form of economic activity in that year. Two years later, UNICEF's Situation Analysis on Excluded Children In Jamaica indicated that 16,240 children, ages five to 17, were involved in "economic activities" - the same as reported in 2002.
"Current data are needed. It is unacceptable that we don't have it. Current data will help us to spearfish rather than throw nets," Clarke remarked. She added: "The problem (of child labour) is real and we need to address it, and we need to go beyond addressing the symptoms and look at the deep-rooted causes."
Marva Ximinnies, director of the Child Labour Unit in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, admitted that the absence of contemporary statistics was regrettable. "Unfortunately, the data we have is a bit dated. We did a national survey in 2002 as a part of the country programme in conjunction with the International Labour Organisation's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour."
Ximinnies argues that the lack of up-to-date and reliable data handicaps the Child Labour Unit's ability to plan strategies to rescue hundreds of children.
The director does not think that the authorities have given the issue of child labour the attention it demands. "We are not seeing child labour as a national-development issue, and it is. We are not making the links," she said.
"If not addressed, in the next 10 years, the pool of qualified workers will shrink and you'll have the jobs and nobody to fill them," she warned against the backdrop of the 2002 edition of the Youth Activity Survey, which revealed that some 60 per cent of Jamaica's children involved in child labour had left school by or before grade nine, with many of them being illiterate.
She continued: "Child labour produces child labourers, and it is a cycle that we have to break."
With few available spaces in children's homes across the island, Ximinnies urged the Government to invest in child-development centres, which could be done by refurbishing some of the abandoned buildings owned by the Government, which is a cheaper alternative to building from scratch. "If we don't make a start, nothing will happen," she argued.
There is a national plan of action that the Child Labour Unit is trying to implement, but there are resource constraints.
Child Labour Unit's four-pronged national plan of action
Get current and reliable data.
Establish public awareness and sensitisation.
Improve the knowledge of personnel at the labour ministry in terms of identifying children who are exposed to child labour.
Work with trade unions and the Jamaica Employers' Federation to assist in building awareness among employers.