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10 Aug, 2009 05:56

Children of Lebanon: happy little men without a childhood

For most children work is in the distant future, but that's not the case in Lebanon, the country that has the highest number of working teenagers in the world.

Poverty in Palestinian refugee camps outside Tripoli pushes children as young as 10 years old to get up early in the morning and get to whatever work they could find, like in auto-repair or blacksmith's workshops. Their families simply cannot afford them not to work.

“My parents say: learn the trade and then you can open your own shop,” says 10-year-old Abdel, already hard at work early in the morning. Abdel spends his days underneath a car and believes he is no good for school.

Helping out in the car shop, he works 10 hour days, 6 days a week, making $10 a week, and bringing home all he makes.

“I get paid every Friday, so far so good,” Abdel says.

This is not average family help Americans or Europeans are used to, it is full time child labour for $0.17 an hour. Although illegal, it is incredibly popular across the Middle East. There are hundred of children across Lebanon working in car shops like Abdel does, while the authorities have turned the blind eye.

Lebanon signed the International Labour Organization convention on child labour in 2001, but has been unable to implement it due to a lack of resources, leaving children like Abdel completely on their own.

“We are talking about chemical hazards because children are working with some chemicals like the grease, various thinners and benzene – all of these things. Children, because of their small size, could be asked to squeeze in smaller compartments and confined spaces to do one task or the other,” explains Iman Nuwayhid of American University of Beirut. “The hazards are many, and if adult workers are exposed to them than I expect that children are also exposed to them.”

But the risks are quickly forgotten because in a refugee camp any job is better than nothing. That is why Abdel is considered luckier than most. Some say work is what keeps youngsters like him off the streets and away from crime.

“I started working at his age,” says Abdel’s boss Ahmad Kholeir, “he could have been abandoned and roam the streets, while here he is helpful and learning a craft.”

Abdel says the mechanics treat him as an equal. He carries out his chores with pride and even joy. But his story is an exception among underground underage workforce.