Fine crafts from too-tiny hands
Morocco's new king launches jihad on rampant child labor
Tucked into a backroom of the Congress Palace in Morocco's medieval city of Fes, 50 small pairs of hands work at row upon row of looms, clipping carpets for tourists. Some are age 6, some younger. Their arms are scarred where the scissors have missed the wool.Skip to next paragraph
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"They pay Mum, not me," says 6-year old Rabie, who works 10 hours a day for $14 a month. "If they see me talking to you, they'll wrap my knuckles."
The girls are part of an army of over a million child workers in Morocco, who for centuries have created works of art the world finds irresistible.
But as part of his efforts to bring Morocco into the 21st century, Morocco's young King Mohammed VI has launched what he calls a holy war for education - to get children off the workbench and into the classroom. In communities without schools, mosques have been ordered to teach reading skills to half the population that is illiterate. And the problem is so great, officials at the United Nation's International Labor Organization in Geneva rank Morocco alongside China and India as a state tolerating one of the worst forms of child labor.
The ILO's Frans Roselaers says the dangers of carpet weaving should be likened to those of prostitution or forced army conscription.
But as the children in the Fes clipped away at the carpets, Western delegates gathered late last month in the same building, overhead, under the patronage of the king. They met to discuss the disbursement of 1.5 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in aid. Participants at the "Moroccan Civil Society Workshop" included the US Embassy in Rabat and even a Dutch charity, the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, for young children.
Few child workers hear the words of concern. During breaks at the Fes workshop, Western delegates head to the state handicraft bazaar to bargain for prized "little hands" carpets. The conference, whose topics include "transparency and credibility," is hosted by the Moroccan Ministry for Human Rights, which denies the conference center also doubles as a workhouse.
"The premises belong to the state, and no one under the age of 18 is allowed to work there," says the kingdom's human-rights minister, Mohammed Aujjar, as he climbs into his chauffeur-driven black limousine after leaving the conference. "Child labor is forbidden in Morocco."
The delegates met the same week that a new international labor law, ILO Convention 182, requiring the elimination of hazardous child labor, came into force.
"We find girls as young as 5 or 6 in the Fes Congress Palace, and the government knows it," says Raja Berrada of the UN child agency, UNICEF. "There are serious health concerns. These girls are malnourished and stand all day at the loom."
Under pressure from monitoring bodies like the ILO, Morocco is coming under increasing pressure to act. The European Union's largest recipient of aid in the Arab world, more than 5 million of Morocco's citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Its ministers are better paid than many of their European counterparts.