On the evening of September 6, 15-year-old Renard ‘Rene’ Fernandes had gasoline poured on his body which was then set alight by a workmate on the fishing boat where he was working. He and the captain of the vessel – Beeram Motee Lall, 45, who suffered the same fate – both died less than a week later as a result of the injuries they sustained.

Renard Fernandes’s death has once again raised the ugly spectre of child labour and the question of whether persons in authority, who nay-say about its existence, are aware of the extent of it and whether they care. Renard was a boy doing a grown man’s job. Fishing might be a pleasurable exercise if one is going about it with a rod. Commercial fishing is labour intensive and in Guyana’s waters there is the added dimension of burgeoning piracy which makes it one of the more dangerous jobs at present.

Renard Fernandes, his mother, Indrawatie Sookdeo, said, had left school six months ago to help the family “to make ends meet.” Ms Sookdeo said her son had gone to sea three times prior to the incident which cost him his life. He was the second of five children and had three younger siblings who needed school supplies. She said the decision to leave school was his; that he wanted to assist. The question that arises is whether 15 year olds are in fact mentally capable and mature enough to make such decisions themselves.

Unfortunately, Renard Fernandes was hardly an isolated case. In a subsequent interview with this newspaper, the owner of the boat, Mr Bridgelall “Anoop” Hardyal, when asked about sending a minor to sea, was quick to insist that it was the now dead captain who was responsible for hiring his crew. However, Mr Hardyal first attempted to defend the situation by stating that some “20 underage boys are working at the Albion shore.” He added that “With fishing work you don’t ask for age and they don’t come with ID cards. They just jump in the boat and go.”

He then qualified that statement noting that it (employing underage boys) was not the right thing to do, but insisting that “times are hard and everybody trying to make a living.”
Renard Fernandes and his peers at Albion and around the country, are poster boys for child labour and lend credence to the growing disparity between females and males in secondary and tertiary education, noted in the World Bank’s ‘World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.’ The report, launched on Monday last referred to “a new concern, particularly in the Caribbean,” that has emerged from the identification of education as primarily a “female” endeavour. This, it said, has seen “young men in countries such as Dominica and Jamaica withdraw from school.” The same situation exists here. A look at the University of Guyana graduating classes over the past few years reveals a predominance of females. A sign perhaps that gender inequality had shifted deeply over on the distaff side. However, this is not universal, as, according to the report, wide gaps still remain particularly among indigenous populations.

On the other hand, both Ms Sookdeo, Renard’s mother, and Mr Hardyal, the boat owner, have indicated that economics is behind school-age boys on the Corentyne dropping out of school to become crew members on fishing vessels. Perhaps the parents of the 20-odd other boys Mr Hardyal referred to would say the same thing – that their sons would be in school if their families were not that poverty stricken. But quite likely no one has asked them. Mr Hardyal’s pronouncements rang no alarm bells, sent no team of social/welfare officers scurrying to the Albion foreshore to find the other ‘Renards’.  It seems that as long as the underground child labour force, which surely exists, remains under the radar, then all is well.

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