By Iman Khan
Iman Khan is a recent graduate of the York University BA (Hons) programme in Political Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is a dedicated mother, a Guyanese patriot, and currently a Red Thread volunteer.
Summertime in North America ushers in the re-emergence of youthful entrepreneurs — younger children sitting earnestly behind their lemonade stands and pre-teens and teenagers selling their labour power, mowing lawns. There are often cute news segments on morning radio and television shows about the benefits of encouraging these entrepreneurial activities, teaching children responsibility and a sound work ethic, etc. This summer several information agencies released articles supporting children in their money-making ventures. MSN Money published an article entitled “10 Tips for the Coolest Lemonade Stand”, advising children on business ideas to make their lemonade stands successful, while cable networks CNN and CBS condemned the shutting down of a seven-year-old Oregonian girl’s stand this past August. Here in Guyana, the realities of children selling beverages and other merchandise are vastly different. These children are forced to work out of economic necessity, not because they want to purchase a cricket bat, or earn a new pair of shoes, or contribute to a charitable cause. Very often, parents and guardians drive their dependents out into the afternoon heat to peddle goods, solicit money, or to sit for long hours behind various stands in a form of forced employment that straddles the line of child labour abuse.
Officials maintain that there are no alarming rates of child labour in Guyana–just children helping out their families. The Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security has refuted claims from the Trafficking in Persons 2010 Report, which reveals that child labour in Guyana rampantly exists. Indeed, there is not much evidence of giant corporations exploiting children as occurs in parts of India and Africa, but what persists in Guyana is tremendous family-based exploitation. As I write this, I’m sitting not far from twelve-year-old Mary and fifteen-year-old Nico, whose names have been changed in order to protect their identities. We are currently on the Georgetown seawall where they work every day after school. At 3:00 pm they begin their laborious duties by slowly and painfully wheeling a refrigerator stocked with beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic; two plastic chairs; a wooden stand and a big bag containing snacks and cigarettes to be sold to patrons enjoying the rejuvenating qualities of the Atlantic breeze. At around 9:30 pm, they exhaustedly pack up and head for home, too tired to even think of homework.
I tell Nico that I’m researching child work in Guyana and ask him if he’s willing to share with me his experiences. I had previously interviewed some students in Linden for a project dealing with corporal punishment and had learned from that project that there are a number of our children who are being overworked, mistreated and abused by their families. Some of those students recounted stories of having to work after school in family shops or on family farms and were often physically punished for offences such as “playing instead of working” or “failing to return home immediately after school, to work.” The exploitation is hidden because their jobs are often disguised as chores. It is easy to distinguish between abusive child labour and child work. The defining question asks: at what point does it become exploitative?
Still, for my own comfort, I prefer to remain oblivious to any evidence about the nature of child work in Guyana and I even believe for a few minutes that these children could very well be like those child entrepreneurs in North America–voluntarily and happily earning their own income. I explain the logistics of entrepreneurship to Nico, but he shakes his head from side to side and says: “I just come out and sell, the money goes to my mother.”
I wonder how the children are compensated so I ask, “do you receive an allowance or any money for your work”?
Silently but forcefully, he shakes his head from side to side.
“If I were to write a story about how hard you and your siblings work, would it be a happy story or a sad story?” I ask.
“Sad,” he mutters after a long pause. “Today she made me pull everything out by myself.”
In a few hours I learn much about the withdrawn boy. I learn that he has no choice but to work and that he has been working for several years. I learn that he wakes up at 5 to do morning chores and prepare for school. Immediately after school he goes home to begin work. On Saturdays and Sundays he works later because people are not at work and therefore have more free time to spend on the seawall.
“I have some free time on Sunday mornings; most times I either go by the car wash and work or go around the streets raising money,” he says.
He is lagging behind his classmates, partly because he has no time to do homework, but continues to pass. His mother has six children, but he is the eldest child in the household. He has contemplated leaving, but doesn’t want to leave his younger siblings with the heavy burden of taking the cart out day after day after day.
I learn that his mother is a completely impoverished single parent whose partner died a few years ago.
His sister speculates the cause of their father’s death to be associated with the ocean tides. “They say when the sea water rise, it raise up the water in his heart, and his heart drowned,” she says.
Nico offers a more realistic take, “People does say he had AIDS or tuberculosis; mommy used to break the spoons and throw it away after he eat.”
While he paints his mother as the villainous woman who overworks and beats her children, I understand how helpless and alone this socially and economically disadvantaged woman must be. I think of Christopher Ram’s apt expression, Too Poor to “Pay” Attention, and the way it contextualizes the plight of poor women and children as I try to understand why it is that there are so many children wandering the streets when they should be in school, or selling behind stalls late at night when they should be preparing for bed. Child labour and the social and economic position of women are two issues that go hand in hand. A commitment to the inclusion and empowerment of women has to be included in the commitment to end child labour.
Financial services that provide micro-credit, enterprise development, and training must be made available to poor women. The Women of Worth microcredit scheme is a laudable initiative aimed at helping low income single mothers. It is however still off-putting as it requires socially and economically marginalized women to be able to navigate the red tape and bureaucracy that exists. What other welfare services exist? The $400 million school uniform voucher distribution programme was a commendable step to progressive taxation and political, social responsibility. How else can we help women and children living in circumstances resembling that of Nico and his mother? Are child allowances or child tax benefits being explored? What about tax reductions? The government has closed the debate on the rate of value added tax, maintaining a 16% rate and offering no concessions to poor women. Children do not take care of themselves. Many women are single handedly clothing and feeding our nation’s children. And just like rich women, some times poor women want to be able to feed their children more than just bread. The assumption that these women and their children can survive comfortably on only basics is the bias that exists in the tax system. Red Thread and Grassroots Women across Race (GWAR) wrote to Stabroek News on November 14 about the burdensome VAT. An excerpt reads: “One of us has just experienced a fire that destroyed everything and is finding it difficult to start over because every household item attracts 16% VAT.”
Child labour is alarmingly high in Guyana, but it is normalized and unnoticed. There are seemingly vulnerable children everywhere, but our citizens lack the solidarity and empathy to challenge it, while our government lacks the efficiency, transparency, and structure to solve it.
We all are guilty as we walk pass these children every day, often averting our eyes, and sometimes, in an attempt to assuage our guilt, stopping to make a purchase, deluding ourselves into thinking that we have done our good deed for the day by “patronizing” these young children. We do so more often than usual during the Christmas season.
I challenge you to take a few minutes out of your day to have a conversation with one of these young vendors. Find out what their lives are like, what their dreams are, who they hope to become. I challenge you to think of the plight of vulnerable women and children during the hustle and bustle of the season, and make it a 2011 resolution to commit to a better understanding of who they are as human beings.
It really does take a village to raise a child.