Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Child Labor in the Arab Region Increasing

Child labor will only render Arab societies more impoverished and destitute and prevent nations from achieving the development objectives set forth in their economic and social policies.

Child Labor Arab Region
An Iraqi child employed at the traditional brick factory of Nahrawan, one of the largest brick factories in Iraq located on the eastern outskirts of the capital Baghdad, sits on a donkey cart. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

In recent years, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crises have undermined social protection systems in low and middle-income economies. It made it more difficult to safeguard children from the most dangerous types of employment. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the prevalence of conflicts and the high rates of displacement and asylum.

As part of efforts to encourage national governments and international organizations to take more action against children entering the labor force, the United Nations launched the “Comprehensive Social Protection to End Child Labor” campaign in 2022.

The spread of child labor worldwide

Figures from the International Labor Organization and UNICEF indicate that today there are more than 160 million working children around the world, an increase of 8.4 million children compared to 2016. In addition, there are 79 million children engaged in hazardous occupations, an increase of 6.5 million children compared to 2016. The statistics indicate that there are a further 9 million children currently at risk of joining the labor market due to the recent economic pressures worldwide.

These alarming figures reflect a reversal in the decline of child labor for the first time in nearly 20 years. Between 2000 and 2016, there was a gradual reduction in the number of underage workers by 94 million due regulations and social protection networks put in place by the governments of most developing countries.

However, according to the most recent figures, child labor is once again on the rise globally, which poses a danger to prior successes. This concerning development explains recent U.N. efforts to re-commit to the goals of combating child labor.

According to U.N. reports, it is clear that the phenomenon has increased in proportion to the prevailing levels of poverty. In the least developed countries, one out of every four children is in the labor market, while 9 per cent of all children in lower middle-income countries and 7 per cent in upper middle-income countries engage in the labor market.

Unmet objectives

In recent years, the Arab region in particular has witnessed the rapid and dangerous spread of child labor. A vast majority of Arab countries have inked international agreements aimed at combating child labor, and put in place local legislation and regulations aimed at child protection. In addition, they have approved plans to rein in this phenomenon until it is completely eliminated by the year 2025.

However, it appears that a number of Arab countries have failed to achieve their goals despite all these efforts, plans and legislation. In fact, the numbers indicate that the situation has grown worse over the past decade.

The International Labor Organization estimates the number of children currently in the labor market in Arab countries to be about 13.4 million, or 15 per cent of all children in the Arab region. This alarming number far exceeds global rates of child labor in lower middle-income and upper middle-income countries, indicating the presence of exceptional factors pushing an increasing number of children into the labor market.

Today, more than half of the Arab countries, including Palestine, Tunisia, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen, are directly affected either by internal armed conflicts or due to an influx of refugees, migrants, and displaced persons.

In many instances, refugees and displaced people in across these countries have been deprived of social safety nets, while refugee children are often denied access to free education. As a result, the spread of poverty and destitution among vulnerable families has contributed to pushing children to work under horrific conditions.

Further exacerbating the situation is the effect of the global economic crisis on Arab nations. The rise in the prices of basic commodities in global markets over the past three years has contributed to raising inflation rates in most, if not all, Arab countries, pushing more families below the extreme poverty line due to the decline in their purchasing power.

As a result, the recruitment of children as cheap labor in agricultural, for example, has increased. About half of working children in Egypt, Sudan and Yemen currently toil in the agricultural sector.

It is evident that within three years, as promised in their national plans, many Arab countries will not be able to totally eradicate child labor. Instead, it seems that this phenomenon will continue to expand further.

While official efforts are restricted to laws and procedures that attempt to outlaw this practice, efforts to fight child labor are very unlikely to be successful.

Such actions ought to go hand in hand with comprehensive development strategies that address the root causes of this trend, chief among them the increase in poverty, the erosion of social safety nets, and the rise in inflation. Additionally, comprehensive answers are required for crises brought on by armed conflicts, displacement, and asylum.

Types and risks of child labor in the Arab countries

Based on the diverse origins of the phenomenon, various Arab countries have distinct forms and rates of child labor.

In the case of Egypt, for example, child labor is linked to poverty in many of Cairo’s neighborhoods, as well as to attitudes in rural areas where child labor is normalized.

According to the Egyptian government, child labor is particularly widespread in the mining, quarrying, brick-making, and other construction and agricultural industries. According to the most recent survey, these industries employ 1.6 million children, or nearly 9.3% of all the nation’s underage workers, with about 82.2% of them working in hazardous and deplorable conditions.

As for Yemen, this practice has correlated during the past ten years to the war in the country and the ensuing internal displacement that has left families in precarious and unstable position conditions, forcing many children into labor, particularly in the agriculture field.

As a result of exposure to dangerous pesticides, poisons, fertilizers, and other chemicals, more than 192,000 Yemeni children suffer from asthma and vision impairment. Other disorders include skin infections, digestive diseases, epilepsy, and various eye infections.

According to UNICEF, the dire economic conditions in Iraq are driving a third of the country’s children into labor to support their families. In addition to poverty, the expansion of unregulated, unsupervised informal labor outside of governmental or local union regulation or oversight has led to an increase in child labor. This emerged from the state’s diminished presence and ability to enforce laws and regulations as a result of the ongoing security crisis. Iraq currently has a large population of children working in scrap collection inside waste dumps, which raises health concerns.

In Lebanon, displacement as a result of the war in Syria has contributed to increasing child labor rates, with statistics indicating that the majority of Syrian refugee children work in various Lebanese economic sectors.

Similarly, the conflicts in Libya and Syria over the past decade have resulted in a lack of state oversight in the labor market and an increase in the number of struggling families forced to put their children to work.

Additionally, children are increasingly being enlisted into local militias and exploited as soldiers, spies, and human shields. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

A lost generation

The loss of an Arab generation in more than ten Arab countries is what is of grave concern. The rise of child labor carries significant health and humanitarian risks,. It also poses serious economic and societal dangers since generations are being deprived access to a quality education.

Arab nations will incur losses in the coming decades as a consequence of the loss of an entire generation’s access to the educational opportunities that would have given them the skills necessary to find dignified, well-paying jobs and contribute to society.

Instead, child labor will only render Arab societies more impoverished and destitute and prevent nations from achieving the development objectives set forth in their economic and social policies.