COVID-19 pandemic fuels child labour in Jordan


Economic fallout has devastated Jordan’s breadwinners’ ability to feed their families, forcing children to look for work while schools throughout the Middle Eastern kingdom have been closed for nearly a year now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said that while it had no hard statistics, it believed many Jordanian children had been forced into precarious work since the pandemic began – despite it being forbidden to employ those under 16.

Some 76,000 children were already working in Jordan, according to the last official count published in 2016.

“When we see children and when we speak to people, we are concerned that the numbers are increasing,” said Ms. Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF’s country representative in Jordan.

“It would seem logical… because we know the levels of poverty are increasing” during the coronavirus crisis, she added.

“As school is shut, I help my family financially,” said Omar, a 14-year-old sporting a sweater and dirty jeans as he repair and clean kerosene heaters with his blackened hands. He works exhausting 12-hour days at the workshop, and collapses into bed after a shower and a quick evening meal.

Overall, the work “doesn’t bother me”, he said. “What is unbearable is the smell of kerosene…(it) doesn’t go away.”

He earns three dinars (US$4.23) a day, which helps pay the family’s monthly rent of 130 dinars. His contribution is vital because his father, a day labourer, has struggled to find work due to the coronavirus downturn.

But Omar has not given up hope, and said he was determined to return to school as soon as possible. “I would love to continue my studies” and eventually become a pilot, he said.

“I don’t want the coronavirus to destroy my dream.”

The official poverty rate in Jordan was 15.7% last autumn, but the World Bank has warned this will increase by 11 percentage points over “the short term”. Experts fear child labour rates will surge even higher.

“I expect child labour to increase dramatically,” said Mr. Ahmad Awad, director of Jordan Labour Watch. He pointed to both the rise in poverty and the pandemic’s negative impact on Jordan’s education system as drivers of this trend.

Experts say a decline in the quality and accessibility of education – now offered remotely where possible – in Jordan is also harming children’s futures.

UNICEF estimates less than a third of schoolchildren in the country have Internet access, making it impossible for the bulk of pupils to follow online classes during the pandemic.

Ms. Frida Khan, the International Labour Organisation’s country coordinator, said distance learning was particularly problematic among poorer families. She said many have only one smartphone, which the main breadwinner generally takes to work.

On top of that, parents often have a low level of education themselves. “Consequently, they cannot help their children learn,” she said.

The Jordanian Education Ministry has announced a return to classes next month for kindergarten and some elementary school levels, as well for students in their final year of high school. Everyone else will have to wait until March. (Source: The Straits Times)