Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hidden at Home: Child Labor in Albania

flikr, Cuito Cuanavale
By Aislinn Shaul-Jensen

My daughters don’t like the work and I feel guilty asking them to help me…but we wouldn’t be able to manage financially without their help … It’s really tough.”
-       Aurora, Albanian mother, interviewed by the ITUC

Sadly, stories like Aurora’s are not uncommon. While Albania has received much publicity for its transnational human trafficking and organized crime-related issues, child labor within the country is often over-looked. Although the Albanian government has signed and ratified several international treaties protecting child workers, and has passed domestic legislation of its own, child labor remains a disturbing reality.

The shoe and textile industry in Albania currently employs hundreds of children, many of them working in extremely dangerous conditions. In one such case in 2006, a 15-year-old girl working at a small factory that produces cardboard handbags was killed when a press crushed her head.
And although it is usually more dangerous in a commercial environment, child labor is not just a problem inside the factories; it reaches into the homes of parents who are factory workers as well. Many Albanian parents, like Aurora, dislike asking their children to work, but feel they have no other alternative. The volume they have to produce in order to make a living wage is simply too high to accomplish alone.

According to the ITUC, when employers pay such low wages that employees have no choice but to take home extra tasks, their children often end up having to help in order to make ends meet in the household. Aurora’s children frequently make shoes with her until the early hours of the morning. Her materials supplier also supplies other women in her community, and he admits that he “has no control over the way they work. It’s not up to me to find out whether they involve their children in the work.”

In 2001, Albania ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Worst Forms of Child Labour (Convention 182). Articles 5 and 6 contain provisions for implementation of mechanisms to monitor and prevent child labor. Adhering to this Convention, Albania the National Steering Committee (NSC) to implement educational, health, and social programs and services, and to trains labor inspectors to identify and monitor child labor. However, this organization faces a series of problems that include shortage of funding and office space. And while the NSC has cracked down on many child labor issues in the factories and other industries, it has been ineffective in monitoring the more hidden problem of child labor in private homes.

In addition to the ILO treaty, Albania ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child  (CRC) in 1992. Article 32 states that the government has a duty to protect children from harmful or dangerous work. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reviews reports submitted by states every five years, but it cannot receive complaints from citizens and it does not monitor parents’ behavior, meaning that it doesn’t look at what the state does to monitor in-home child labor. Fortunately, many NGO’s (such as the Children's Human Rights Center of Albania) are able to participate in the ground-level monitoring process. These organizations produce reports and conduct independent research. Several NGO’s have flagged child labor in the home as a serious issue, but so far have been unable to come to a consensus on how to solve the issue. The most prominent solutions include making education more available to Albanian children and providing better wages to their parents.

Since child labor in the home is so hard to monitor, it is difficult to eradicate it through targeted sanctions or penalties. One possibility is to implement a system similar to reporting to Child Protective Services in the U.S.; neighbors could anonymously report on suspicious behavior to allow the NSC to do a follow-up home visit. Teachers also often have insight to what is going on in a child’s private life and could report suspicious activity.

But finding an appropriate sanction is difficult because the parents do not have enough money to pay a fine. NGO’s have found that it’s often easier to reward good behavior than to punish bad behavior, possibly by giving families food for complying with a home visit, provided that the report is positive.

There are other kinds of child labor slipping through the cracks as well, despite Albania’s strong legal framework. Many measures, such as the minimum working age of 16 (established by Article 98 of Albania’s Labor Code and ratification of ILO Convention 138), are only applicable to employment by contract. This overlooks children who are employed without a contract in dangerous industries like agriculture, construction, and mining, and therefore fails to comply with the spirit and intention of the CRC.

When a contract is required, the children or their parents can easily forge papers to fraudulently show that the minor is 18, the minimum age for dangerous work.  According to the ITUC, Paulin Radovanni, director of the Bertonni shoe factory in Northern Albania, says he refuses to employ anyone underage. However, after he refuses employment to a minor, the same child often returns with false documentation showing that he or she is of age and is hired.

Another factory employee explains that some of his co-workers are younger than fourteen: “The employer likes to take on younger people because he doesn’t declare them, so doesn’t have to pay taxes for them … my boss tells them to hide when a work inspector comes, so he’s never been caught.” Whether the children are employed knowingly or inadvertently, it’s clear that monitoring methods are lacking. The government needs more stringent guidelines to prevent false documentation and more investigative inspections to comply with the CRC.

But Government programs and legislative measures such as the Law for Protection of Children (LPC) (see the UNHCR’s annual report on Albania) are not always successful, and in some cases too new for their full impact to be seen. According to the UN report, despite implementation of such laws, 19 percent of Albanian children between the ages of six and 14 were working in 2010.

Perhaps most telling of both the problem and the potential cure is the link between child labor and education; low-income families often cannot afford the loss of income due to participation in school.

The International Center of Child Labor and Education (ICCLE) summed up this relationship during its Pan-European and Euro-Mediterranean Regional Consultation in 2007: “we are witnessing challenges from the countries in the Balkans where school systems have suffered and increasing poverty has increased the incidence of child labor.” Open Societies Foundation data from 2008 shows that, in spite of government regulation providing free and mandatory education for children to complete their ninth year of primary education, only a quarter of Roma children actually complete this level.

CRC Article 28 protects the right to education and says that states should take measures: (b) “such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;” and (e) “to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.” There’s another human right at play here, and there are specific state obligations regarding what governments should do to address the issue.

As mentioned above, several nonprofit organizations have found that providing incentives, such as food, to children in school helps to keep them out of the child labor market. Because of these efforts, one father interviewed by ITUC said that instead of having his 11 and 12-year-old boys work in a city dump with him recycling trash, he is now able to send them to school (he still has their help during the holidays).

According to the ICFTU, current regulations requiring mandatory education are virtually unenforced. Legislation should be passed to protect children working with their families and those who fall outside of contract work. More resources need to be distributed to the inspectors and organizations in charge of monitoring child labor. Statistics on these labor inspection findings should also be made more public, since right now child labor is an issue that is ignored or overlooked by many in this area.

The international community can aid the enforcement process of the numerous treaties Albania has signed by holding it accountable to standards reducing child labor and through increased work by NGO’s to monitor improvements in a non-biased manner. Multinational Corporations should require more stringent documentation concerning the age of employees, and prevent workers from taking excess work home and assigning their children to do it. Just recently, on October 24th, 2011, Albania signed a new program of cooperation with the UN. This is good news for progress in child labor; it means Albania is willing to work towards its goals. However, enforcement has a long way to go and it remains to be seen exactly what will happen in the future.

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