Kowsar prefers working the vines to collecting potatoes.
“It’s better as there’s more shade. Potato work is out in the open fields under the sun, and it’s hard. I collect the potatoes in 20 kilogramme sacks which I have to carry to the collection point,” she said.
Kowsar never had to do such back-breaking work in Aleppo, but she has had to help support her family since fleeing Syria to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley three years ago.
The war in Syria, now in its sixth year, has caused millions of refugees to flee their homes, putting significant strain on already stretched labour markets, infrastructure and public services in neighboring countries.
In Lebanon, authorities have placed severe restrictions on the access of adult refugees to work and to legal residency, which affects their ability to travel throughout the country. This, coupled with a troubled national economy and cuts in international humanitarian aid, mean most adult refugees cannot make a living for their households.
“Poverty is forcing many families to rely on their children to contribute to their livelihood.”
Hayat Osseiran, ILO child labour consultant
“The number of working children has increased exponentially since the Syrian refugee crisis began. Poverty is forcing many families to rely on their children to contribute to their livelihood,” said Hayat Osseiran, a child labour consultant at the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“In the Beqaa valley, an agricultural area that received large numbers of refugees, the children work largely as farm hands.”
But it is not just Syrian children working in the fields.
“We think only Syrians are being affected, but from 2009 to 2016, there has been an increase in the number of Lebanese child labourers,” said Carlos Bohorquez, a child protection specialist at UNICEF, referring to a study the agency carried out on child labour in the country.
“There are three times more Lebanese (children) working than before, so the Lebanese are also being affected.”
Out of school, into the fields
There is a dearth of national data on child labourers, but an indication of the rise in their numbers can be gaged through school attendance.
“Last year there were around 10,000 Lebanese students that dropped out,” said Sonia Khoury, Director of the RACE project (Reaching All Children with Education) at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE).
Among Syrian refugee children the numbers are even starker. Currently, out of the 482 thousand school aged Syrian children, only 33 per cent are enrolled in school.
To bolster attendance among refugees, the MEHE’s RACE project initiated in 2014 a second school shift in the afternoons.
“Four months after starting the second shifts, 45,000 students had dropped out,” said Khoury, attributing this to children leaving to work, and to the lack of affordable school transportation in rural areas.
There is also a correlation between the main harvest season – which in Lebanon stretches from July to Octorber – and school attendance.
“We are noticing that 2,000 to 3,000 are absent during that time,” Khoury said.
She added that even outside the main harvest season, children are increasingly working in all stages of the agricultural cycle, from planting to processing produce.
It is not only the workload that Kowsar finds tough. She says she has been frequently exposed to pesticides.
“I get a rash from the pesticides. Sometimes I get flu or breathing difficulties too as we get no protection,” she said.
Such exposure can lead to pesticide poisoning and long-term health problems, explained Rana Barazi-Tabbara, a public health lecturer at the American University of Beirut.
“For children it is especially dangerous, as there will be immediate health effects from pesticide toxicity, which at the most acute level can cause vomiting and sometimes even death. In the long term, pesticides affect nearly all the organs in the body, from the neurological to the reproductive system, and can result in cancer,” she said.
Indeed, the ILO notes that agriculture is one of the three most dangerous sectors in terms of occupational safety and health, irrespective of the age of the worker, because – in addition to occupational diseases – it results in a high rate of work-related fatalities and non-fatal accidents, largely through use of motorized agricultural machinery.
When agricultural work jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, it is “hazardous work” and one of the “worst forms of child labour.”
To raise awareness of these dangers and risks, the agency held a children’s funfair in the town of Saadnayel in the Beqaa.
The children who participated in the fair were victims of the worst forms of child labour, noted the ILO’s Osseiran.
“These children worked in agriculture and under very harsh physical, psychological and financial conditions. The fair was one of our ways to raise awareness, among both locals and refugees, on the very real dangers and risks children face when working in agriculture,” Osseiran explained at the close of the fair, which was held just ahead of World Day against Child Labour , marked globally on 12 June.
“It also included painting activities and artistic performances by working children and their parents, which provided them with a means to express some of the distress they feel due to their life of toil and hardship.”
Children have often been extra hands during harvesting time to pick olives and other cash crops in Lebanon.
“Not all participation by children in agriculture is defined as child labour. It can be to acquire skills for the future, and is allowed as long as the children are not coming to harm, being abused, or denied the opportunity to get an education,” said Faten Adada of the FAO’s Social Protection Focal Point.
Lebanon’s Decree No. 8987 of 2012 defines which forms of agricultural labour minors can engage in.
“It specifies which forms of hazardous work and which forms of agricultural work children should not be exposed to, which includes family farming. However, there is a loophole in the law that says that when a child is engaged in family farming they can work from the age of 10 onwards. We are working with General Security on closing this loophole,” said Nazha Shalita, Director of the Child Labour Unit at the Ministry of Labour.
But with minimal enforcement of the Decree at the national level, children are openly working in the agricultural sector.
An issue is that the inspection department at the Labour Ministry has just 90 staff members, while there are only around 45 inspectors to monitor labour practices nationwide. UN agencies and others working on child protection in Lebanon note that more inspectors are needed, and that they should receive technical training to properly assess child labour practices.
They should also be backed-up during inspections by General Security officers, says Elie Massoud, Head of the Agriculture Department at the Chambre of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Beirut. This is considered crucial to take on the shawish overseers.
“We need to get more inspectors for the ministry, and we asked General Security to enforce the law. We need to show the shawish overseers that the law is being enforced,” Massoud said.
The shawish overseers used to organize Syrian farm hands that came to Lebanon on a seasonal basis before the 2011 Syrian uprising. Once the conflict erupted, and the number of refugees rose to the government-estimated 1.5 million today, the overseers moved into the informal refugee camps to capitalize on an abundance of cheap labour and their agriculture contacts.
“Those living in the agricultural camps pay no rent, and they are obliged to work for the shawish. If they don’t work, they have to leave,” says Riad Jaber, Co-Founder of the civic organization Beyond Association, at the Fayda camps outside of Zahle.
“This is bonded labour,” explained the ILO’s Osseiran, “which is forbidden under ILO Convention 182 and is unacceptable under all humanitarian norms and values.”
The ILO warns that unless national authorities and the international community take greater action and increase public awareness around the issue, children will continue to be exploited and exposed to hazardous working conditions while missing out on crucial schooling years.
“There should be a concerted effort by the Lebanese government, supported by international donors, to eliminate child labour in agriculture, among refugees as well as Lebanese host communities,” said Frank Hagemann, Deputy Regional Director of the ILO Regional Office for Arab States.
“Unless it is addressed, it will contribute to a ‘lost generation’ in terms of education and human development.”