In Turkey, childhoods vanish in weary harvests

A desire to join Europe could spur Turkey's efforts to reduce the ranks of its 1.6 million child laborers.

Eleven-year-old Zara Cigay exudes weary determination as she works her way down a row of cotton plants on a hot morning in Turkey's Amuq Valley. Hands blackened from the plant oils, the pony-tailed girl pushes through the waist-high foliage, ripping white tufts from their husks and stuffing them into the cloth sack she trails behind her.

Two brothers, aged 6 and 7, work nearby. Around the field, other children, barely visible in the sea of green, toil alongside their parents.

Each year, migrant families pour into the Amuq Valley, in southern Turkey, to pick cotton. They pitch their canvas tents all over the wide, flat expanse and spend up to two months laboring from dawn to dusk. When the harvest is over, some go home, but many move on to other work, taking their children with them. "Wherever there is a job, we do it," says Huseyin Cigay, Zara's great-uncle, speaking for about 60 people from the same village who work together. "The children work with us everywhere."

The Turkish government says that 1.6 million children aged from 6 to 17 perform wage labor, two thirds of them in rural areas.

But Turkey's desire to become part of Europe could spur ongoing initiatives to move these children from workplaces to the classroom. Ankara's efforts to join the European Union - which has voiced concern about Turkey's human rights record - include a commitment to reduce child labor. (The EU could decide in December 2004 whether Turkey is ready to start membership negotiations.)

The children picking cotton in the Amuq are part of a vast problem afflicting mainly poor and developing countries. The International Labor Organization in Geneva estimates that 246 million children labor worldwide, 110 million of them younger than 12. Most work in agriculture. Although 132 countries, including Turkey, have signed an international convention to eliminate child labor, experts say the use of minor workers is increasing as international trade expands and countries compete to produce inexpensive products for global markets.

"It's very much related to the world economy and to the education and attitudes of parents," says Sule Caglar, a Turkish national who works for the ILO on child-labor issues. "Poverty is a major reason, but not the only reason. Another problem is a lack of educational facilities and quality teachers. In most of the world we don't have education facilities that attract and retain children.

Most of the cotton pickers in the Amuq Valley are Kurds and Arabs from poor mountain villages in eastern Turkey. They come out of desperation, they say, travelling hundreds of miles by bus and truck. "We have no other opportunity for earning money," says Mahmut Kurt, who came with seven members of his family.

Everyone works who can. Mothers carry infants into the fields on their backs, and children are expected to lend a hand by the time they are 6. Children like Kurt's 7-year-old son, Adalet, can pick only a fraction of what an adult can, but every little bit helps, his father says.

The pay is meager by Western standards. A typical adult picks about 220 pounds a day, filling a refrigerator-sized burlap bag and earning between $4.50 and $6.25. With everyone working, many families expect to leave the Amuq with about $600 - enough, they say, to pay the debts they have accumulated back home and to keep them coming back year after year. Many adults have been coming to the Amuq since they were children themselves.

Their work, and the work of others like them, is indispensable to the Turkish economy. Cheap labor enables Turkey's huge textile industry to sell clothing abroad at low prices. Landowners, too, need the migrants.

"The workers in the towns around here are not enough," says Esref Karaca, who grows cotton on 2,000 acres. The children worry him, however. "If there is an accident in the field, breaking legs or arms, I have to deal with that problem myself," he says.

Experts do not object to all child labor. The ILO's conventions allow children to work on family farms, for example. But experts say commercial agriculture harms children because it forces them to work long hours, exposes them to pesticides and dangerous machinery, and keeps them out of school.

Turkish law requires children to attend school until they are 14. But many children picking cotton go to school only two months a year, usually in winter when there are no crops to plant or pick. Their principal education is in the back-breaking work of the fields.

Hanum Kuzu, a freckle-faced 9-year-old, is picking for her third season. "It's very hard work, and I am very small," she says shyly, a shock of hair falling across her sunburned face.

Seeing her pause, an older brother two rows away rebukes her, and she plunges back into her work. "When she doesn't work, I'm hitting her," explains her father, Hasan Kuzu, smiling genially. "I hit her just five minutes ago."

Turkey has had some success in reducing child labor simply by increasing the number of years of compulsory schooling. It also has worked with nongovernmental organizations on small projects aimed at getting urban children off the streets and into schools.

But rural children have been relatively neglected. Turkish law forbids children under 15 to work, but exempts agriculture. The Turkish Ministry of Labor has drafted a law that would forbid child labor on farms, but it is not clear when parliament will begin deliberations on it.

The government is considering raising again the number of years of compulsory education.

But no one expects legislation alone to solve the deeper problems, like poverty, that underlie child labor. "The causes of child labor are very difficult," says Erhan Batur, head of the Child Labor Unit in the Ministry of Labor and Social Services in Ankara. "We think it will take some time to find solutions to the problem."

The Labor Ministry and nongovernmental organizations plan to launch a joint project in the fall near Adana to reduce the number of migrant children working in that Mediterranean region by, among other things, offering mobile schools.

For many children, the Amuq is only one stop on a yearly round that can include digging sugar beets in central Turkey and picking hazelnuts at the Black Sea.

"I hate this work," says Ahmet Cigay, straightening and squinting across the sun-drenched cotton field. His daughter Zara, picking nearby, does not stop and says nothing.

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