Senegal's Kid Workers Unite, Demand Rights

Demanding the same rights as their adult counterparts, Dakar's child laborers united this month to form the first citywide association.

With their battle-cry "Worker - Yes! Slave - No!," the children - shoeshine boys, maids, porters, and other underage workers - are seeking to change their condition.

"Why shouldn't we have rights like working adults," asks 15-year-old Oemy Ndir, who has been a maid for the last six years and is one of the association's young leaders.

Ms. Ndir says that she and many of her friends are at the beck and call of the families they work for, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They earn as little as $4 a week, get no health benefits, no schooling, and often have to sleep outside on bare ground.

The UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates there are at least 100 million child workers in the world. In Africa the problem affects at least 25 percent of all children between the ages of 10 and 14. In Senegal, the ILO says, the figure is as high as 40 percent.

The ILO has long had an international program for the elimination of child labor. But it, like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), has avoided efforts to improve working children's conditions for fear of undermining progress on eliminating child-labor altogether. Many experts are now questioning such an idealistic approach to a problem that is clearly not going away. Although Senegal, like most developing countries, has outlawed child labor, the situation is worsening.

"Poor families, particularly from rural areas, are unable to make ends meet," Mr. Diaw says. "The fact remains, they will keep sending their children to work instead of school."

But "unless we acknowledge child labor as a reality, it cannot be regulated," Diaw stresses.

Working children in Dakar have formed their own groups over the last few years, says Mr Diaw. "Now we have helped them link citywide."

The children are demanding 12 rights, including the right to read and write, the right to play, and the right to rest when they are unwell. And while the association is not a recognized trade union, the young leaders say they are going to lobby the Senegalese government to implement minimum-wage laws for minors.

Many in government, as well as the international agencies, are showing cautious support. Raky Kane of ILO Senegal says her group is looking for $1 million in funding for its first program to address the rights of working Senegalese children. And at an ILO conference in Geneva last month, Senegal's minister of labor, Assane Diop, called for more flexibility to this "difficult question."

"Children traditionally work in Senegal," he says. The abuse of child labor arose with the introduction of wage labor in the colonial period, he says, and has worsened with the impoverishment of the region. But Mr. Diop stresses that there are employers that look after their child workers. Some pay for schooling and take responsibility when the children are unwell. "But for the majority, their lives are miserable," he concludes.

Reversing conditions may be almost as difficult as eliminating child labor altogether. According to an ILO study, more than half the children that do not work also do not go to school. Ndir, the young leader, says working children are scared of being fired. "When we don't work, we don't eat," she explains.

Girl domestic workers often complain of being verbally and physically abused and sexually molested, says Ndir. Last year one of her friends, Fatou Diop, was severely injured when her boss allegedly threw her off the fourth story of a building in Dakar after accusing her of stealing.

Hundreds of students and children came out to protest the incident and collect money to pay for her medical bills.

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