Latin America and the Caribbean

Inter Press Service
18 July 1996

Campaign Afoot to Stamp out Child Labour
by Humberto Marquez

CARACAS - A battle has been launched to erradicate child labour and protect underage workers in Venezuela, where one and a half million children have to work to survive.

''It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 under 14's are working in Venezuela, though reliable figures are not available,'' said Eliseo Cuadrao, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) representative in Caracas Thursday.

There is practically no child labour in the formal sector - where it is illegal to employ anyone aged less than 14 years old - and therefore most of the children who do work are in the informal sector ''amidst collective poverty and the dangerous conditions of marginal urban life,'' said Marlene Jairala.

Jairala, from the Catholic Faith and Happiness educational organisation, said there was an urgent need for ''the creation of jobs for the parents, so that poverty will no longer oblige children to work.

Unemployment in Venezuela is officially running at eleven percent, and half of those who do work do so in the informal sector.

Cuadrao explained the ILO programme to eliminate child labour would create national commissions to deal with the issue, including representatives from official institutions, unions, the business sector and non-governmental organisations.

According to official national door to door surveys, a total of 7.2 million Latin American under 14's are working, but the ILO believes the real figure is probably closer to between 18 and 20 million.

However, it was the situation in Africa and Asia which led the ILO to initiate the programme, as the population of working children here is closer to 200 million children.

The initial programme was funded by German aid, and the Latin American section is being helped by Spanish funds.

''A serious increase can be seen in Latin America, and this is a sizeable problem in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico,'' said Cuadrao, while Chile, Cuba, Argentina and Venezuela have not been so harshly affected.

Cuadrao said the main causes were ''the impact of the structural adjustments applied in the regional economy in the last ten years, and the reductions in education budgets, as there is a palpable relation between abandonment of school and the increase in child labour.''

Jesus Urbieta, director of the Workers' Confederation, the main national union, told IPS that ''Venezuela could be a pilot country in preventative measures given the possibility of this moving into the formal economy.''

The Venezuelan unions ''mainly feed on affiliates from big companies and the public sector, and so, campaigns related to child labour have until now not figured in their platforms.''

''We do not have a programme developed to deal with child labour apart from to unite the efforts of the town halls and the NGOs,'' said Urbieta, though the Confederation would be developing a monitoring network for Caracas and three states within the nation over the next few months.

The unions ''realised the ILO has changed its initial criteria - which was to abolish child labour - as this was inapplicable to the real situations of Asia, Africa and Latin America,'' he added.

Corina Parisca, president of the Federation of Private Child Assistance Institutions, agreed with Urbieta, quoting the case of ''12 year old Johnny, a shoe shine boy in Caracas airport, who had to leave school to make money for his mother and his four younger siblings.''

''It is preferable to have boys like Johnny, who are proud of their work and their weekly income of around 13 dollars, than to have thousands of children falsely protected by our legislation,'' she said.

Meanwhile, Jairala also described the other side of the coin where ''girls who start work early in the marginal neighbourhoods of Caracas, washing, sewing or heating up food for the rest of the family, growiny up in a situation of conflict.''

Boy children ''start working carrying crates of beer, collectin and selling the spoilt fruit and vegetables from the markets, going door to door selling odds on horses, and then ends up carrying illegal lottery tickets and prizes from one place to another.''

''The poverty suffered by 80 percent of Venezuelans not only prevents them from getting food, but also immobilises their communities, for whom the neighbourhood is the horizon and the world because their social mobility is reduced,'' said Jairala.

The working children ''have no perspective that what they are doing is a temporary phase in their lives,'' he stressed, ''the girls who enter the labour market are nearly always pregnant four or five months after they start work.''

''The problem cannot be measured in terms of salary but with appreciation of the fact that a working girl who becomes a mother at the age of between 12 and 14 is shut into an ever more serious circle of poverty,'' she added.

Jairala called on the Venezuelan unions, who are very strong in the public sector, to ''de-unionise the classrooms, the operating theatres and the child-care facilities taking their battles into the union headquarters and onto the negotiating table.''

Finally, Cuadrao said the ILO will fight for the ''gradually erradication'' of child labour ''as this must be complemented by better development in the nations, but it is necessary to distance children from high risk jobs like mining, rubbish collection and prostitution,'' he said.

Copyright 1996 InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved

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