For most Afghans, childhood a distant dream
For most children, a normal childhood and school are distant dreams, according to an Independent Media Consortium (IMC) investigation*.
Based on information provided by the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MoLSAMD), there are 1.9 million working children in the country.
Decades of war and poverty have forced them into the ranks of workers. Children have to contribute to family incomes and shoulder the responsibility of looking after siblings and disabled relatives. As a result of chronic conflict there are many orphan children.
Children can be found working in precarious conditions in mines; in brick kilns and agriculture; tending livestock and on the streets. Findings by the IMC reveal their earnings are at best paltry. It could be as little as 1,000 Afs a month (17 USD).
Afghanistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994. Labour laws lay down a minimum age – 15 years – and number of hours of work – not longer than 35 hours a week. But IMC found children working for 20 to 24 hours a day in mines.
A mine called Gawmargi in Dahan-e-Tour in Dare-i-Souf Bala in Samangan province is one of those that are mined by local people. When IMC visited the mine there were children between 8 and 18 years busy at work, cutting the coal seams and transporting the coal on donkeys to the bazaar in Dahan-e-Tour, 5 kms from the mine.
The mineworkers are hard to miss. Everyone, including the children, is covered in soot; their clothes and faces dirty from the coal.
Pir Mohammad, a worker in Gawmargi, says there are at least a hundred children in the mine, including two of his own.
He says children are paid 10,000 Afs (170 USD) on the average every month. He is a contract worker, and is paid 50,000 Afs per month (870 USD).
Khal Mohammad, 13, has been working for the last two years in Gawmargi. He says he works from 1 in the morning to 7 or 8 pm. He herds the donkeys carrying coal to the bazaar at least 15 times daily. It takes him more than an hour to just load and unload the coal.
Khal Mohammad has a sibling in the mine – his eight-year-old brother. They are the family’s sole breadwinners since their father’s death many years ago.
The two brothers live along with other mineworkers in a tent. Once a year they visit their family in Moshak Village in the same district, spending two or three days with them.
IMC fixed an appointment with engineer Ewaz Ali, head of mines in Dare-i-Souf, for an interview but he did not turn up.
Children as young as 10 are employed in the salt mine of Taqcha Khana in Namak Ab district, Takhar province. It is one of the mines in the High Mountain area.
Local people have been illegally mining here. They pay no tax to the government.
Abdul Kabir, head of Taqcha Khana Community Developmental Council (CDC - under the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development) says there are more than 1,000 children. “Their rights have been entirely ignored. The mine should be recognised by the government. Then it will have legal status, and workers will be able to decide salaries. When it is illegal, workers are exploited. Benefits go into the pockets of government officials for looking the other way,” says Kabir. He puts the conundrum facing workers in a colourful way. “People only toil; they don’t even get to fill their stomachs with food.”
Here too like in the Gawmargi coal mine children transport salt to Taqcha Khana bazaar on donkeys, a 1.5 km journey by foot.
Ezatullah is 15 years old. He says he has worked in Taqcha Khana since he was 10. He spends nearly 12 hours transporting the salt to the market; the rest of the time he has to work in the saltpans.
Ezatullah’s father and brother are also working in the mine. The three of them together earn roughly 300-400 Afs a day (300 Afs is 5 USD).
The work is hard but they have no choice. “If we don’t work we won’t have food to eat,” says the father, Abdul Razaq. While Razaq and his older son extract the salt – almost 350 kg a day – Ezatullah takes it to the bazaar where he sells a ser of salt (7 kg) for 4 Afs (57 Afs is 1 USD).
Feda Mohammad Tashi, head of mines in Takhar, admits children are working in the mine. But the practice is soon coming to an end, he claims, with the mining being contracted to a company that will not hire children. IMC could not find out more details about the unnamed company.
Ministry of Mines (MoM) spokesperson Mohammad Rafi Rafiq Sediqi, said children are banned in mines licensed by the government. He claimed that once before a company had leased the salt mine, but its contract was cancelled when it broke the law against child labour.
On the question of child labour in the salt mines, he said they were not working in the mine but transporting the salt by donkeys. “Children are guides for the donkeys,” he insisted.
The government has been trying to create other job opportunities in the area to increase means of livelihood, he claimed.
Nasrullah, commander of a police unit in Namak Ab, told IMC that attempts to stop child labour have failed because families want children to work and contribute to the household budget.
Most children in Malik Haye Khatayan, besides Taloqan (capital of Takhar province) spend the day sieving sand from the banks of the river for gold. Sharp eyes and nimble hands are essential for this tiring process of gold washing which is done after adult gold diggers have finished their work.
Imam Mohammad is the foreman of the gold washers. He says there are some 7,000 mine workers in Khatayan, and at least a third are children. They earn 150-200 Afs (up to 3 USD) daily from selling the tiny pieces of gold they find.
Noor Ahmad is a 14 year old from Farkhar in Takhar province. He was carrying a basket of sand along with a 13-year-old boy when IMC stopped to talk to him. Ahmad said he was staying in his sister’s house. He worked day and night, and earned 200 Afs on most days.
Gold washing was his autumn and winter job, he explained, when the water levels were lower in the river. During the summer he was a farm worker.
Most workers in the mine said they started work at 8 in the morning, and ended at 5pm.
According to figures from the National Labor Union of Afghanistan, there are 50,000 children in brick kilns Deh Sabz and Qarabagh districts, Kabul. There are 900 kilns in the two districts, and they are the biggest source of jobs here. An adult brick worker could earn between 400 and 450 Afs (a maximum of 7 USD) for producing 1,000 bricks.
IMC findings reveal boys and girls as young as six years are working in brick kilns along with their families.
The children are not paid separate wages since they are only seen as helping the adults. In this even families are complicit.
Khilaigul is an elderly worker in a brick kiln in Deh Sabz. “We give only 10-20 Afs to our children, just to make them happy,” he says indulgently.
Nari is a 6-year-old girl. She has been assigned to turn the half-dried bricks. There is red dust on her face, eyelashes and lips. “I am working in the brick kiln along with my father,” she lisps in a dialect. “I earn 10 Afs daily and buy myself something to eat,” she tells IMC. About her daily routine, she says: “When we have breakfast we go to work and in the evening we go home.”
In some places, the wage rate for child labour in brick kilns is specified.
Arshad is an eight-year-old resident of Deh Sabz. While putting the mud into the brick moulds he told me, “There is poverty … The contractor gives my father the money, and he gives me 100 Afs a day (1.7 USD).”
Hajji Arsala, the owner of a brick kiln, says the production work is contracted out to a family. It is the responsibility of the family elder to assign work. They are responsible for hiring child labour, he adds. “We don’t hire the children (in brick kilns). When the elders give them work we cannot interfere,” the brick owner very cleverly passes on the buck.
He claims that if owners were to prevent children from working, the families would abandon their work.
The UN’s children’s agency UNICEF has calculated that 37,000 children are working on the streets of Kabul. They may be washing vehicles, in workshops, selling plastic bags, transporting goods in wheelbarrows, and many other jobs.
They could be as young as seven years, and working 17-hour days.
Seven-year-old Husain is selling plastic bags outside Cinema Pamir in Kabul. He says he is in grade two. He talks easily about himself. “I earn 30 Afs or more daily. We are five people in the family. We don’t have money, so I have to work. We live in a rented house.”
Hamidullah is 17. He unloads trucks bringing in fruit and other things into Kabul during the day. At night he is an apprentice cook at the Hotel Hamsafar. He finishes work at 1 am.
Hamidullah says he earns between 100-150 Afs at the fruit market, and at the hotel he is paid 3,000 Afs per month. He gets to eat what guests leave. There is no tradition of carrying away food if you have over ordered.
Sometimes when work at the truck stop is slow, Hamidullah says he sells bananas. He has to work because his father is old and ill, he adds. His 20-year-old elder brother works in the fruit market. Together they support a family of 17 members.
Child workers are exposed to all kinds of risks whether they are working in the mines or on the streets of Kabul.
Ewaz Ali, foreman in Gawmargi coalmine, says there are no safety mechanisms in the mines. There can be roof collapses. Workers suffer from chronic chest-related problems because of the dust.
Qahraman is a mine contractor in Gawmargi. He admits workers are not protected. “The roof (of the mine) could collapse anytime. There are cases when lives have been lost, even of children. My brother was seriously injured 17 years ago. He is at home, paralysed, unable to move. Many people, old men, children, young, have suffered injuries.”
On September 14 this year a coal mine in Samangan collapsed. Twenty-seven workers were killed, and 30 were injured in the accident in the Abkhorak area of Royi Du Ab district.
Ahmad is 48 years old. He says he worked in the salt mines for eight years, and now he has hired labour to work for him. “The work in mines is very dangerous. Two children were caught by the salt (sucked into a pit) and died. Children (in the area) do not go to school; they carry loads. They are at risk every moment because accidents could take place any minute,” he says.
Ahmad could not say when the accident involving the two children happened. Their bodies were never retrieved, he added. The government should give compensation, and improve safety standards particularly for children working in mines, he pleads.
Ministry of Mines spokesperson Mohammad Sediqi admitted the laws on safety in mining were inadequate. The ministry has drafted a new mining law, which was approved by the ministers' council on May 26, 2013, and sent to the National Assembly.
According to Sediqi, chapter 13 of the new law includes issues such as workers’ safety. Workers must be provided helmets, and other safety gear, for instance.
Dr Reza Nazari of the Mazar-e-Sharif Regional Hospital says she knows of a child worker who fell into a salt well when he was trying to come out after he had finished work. The child was brought to the hospital but unfortunately did not survive.
Dr Sayed Asadullah Sadat, the head of Polyclinic, Kabul Child Health Hospital, says it is hard to estimate the numbers but children are brought to the hospital with injuries that could only be as a result of dangerous work like mining.
Akram Bek, 16, who works in the salt mine of Taqcha Khana, has asthma. “I am ill. My lungs hurt, I have asthma. The clinic here is not well equipped, and I can’t go to the city for treatment.”
Dr Sadat says child workers in the mines are worst affected. “It is dangerous work for children,” he is categorical.
Many of the children IMC spoke to have never been to school because they are too poor.
According to letter number 405 dated June 1, 2013 from the education department, Namak Ab, Takhar province, to the security commandant 105 students have not been attending the Kabir Shaheed middle school. The education department has urged the security commandant to take action.
Nasrullah, commander of the police unit, who investigated found that 80 of the children are working in Taqcha Khana salt mine.
He says, “We summoned 80 of them along with their fathers to security commandment. The fathers said that if our children don’t work and go to school, what would we eat? Their work is the only source of income for us.”
The commander said the children were forcibly sent to school. “But it did not last. They again started working in the mine. We could do no more.”
Nasim is a 15-year-old worker in the coalmine of Gawmargi. “I have to work. We are five people in the family, my father has died,” he is clearly desperate.
Sajad Agha, 13, an apprentice in a motor workshop in the Parwan-e-Se of Kabul, says he dropped out of school last year because of financial problems at home. He is lucky: his “master” pays him a stipend of 300 Afs daily even as he teaches him the work.
Matiaullah, 13, is in grade six at Guzragah school. He works as an apprentice metal worker all morning and goes to school after lunch.
Fariba Haidari, a teacher at his school, says there are at least 60 children, in class 4 to 7, who work, selling plastic bags or washing cars. A majority of the children are orphans, who have no support at home, and are unable to cope with schoolwork. “When you ask them questions, they cry, and say they are working after school in the bazaar,” she laments.
(*) Ms Khamosh is an investigative reporter working at Killid, which is a member of the Independent Media Consortium (IMC) together with Hasht-e-Subh, Nawa radio networks, Saba TV network, and Pajhwok Afghan News. The IMC has set up an investigative reporters' team led by Mr. Abdul Qadir Munsef and supervised by Mr Ricardo Grassi, IMC's coordinator. The IMC is investigating cases of corruption and human rights abuses with financial support provided by Twanmandi.
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