Critics Say Child Labor Saps Portugal's Future
Europe's integration seen as compounding this traditional practice
LISBON — PORTUGAL may be a member of the European Community, but it has a social scourge that is more often associated with underdeveloped countries of the third world: It has a high rate of illegal child labor.
Primarily in Portugal's industrial north, thousands of small children help keep their families afloat by working for low wages on construction sites carrying buckets of sand or pounding nails, and in factories or their own homes doing piece work for shoe and apparel manufacturing.
Child labor remains a glaring blight - and in some cases is even growing - in parts of Europe like Portugal where a rural-to-urban migration, low education levels, and a rapidly rising cost of living are confronting economic pressures for low wages and cheap exports, human rights and economic experts say.
Portugal's government has not ignored the problem, officials and observers agree, and in recent years has taken steps to increase labor inspections and punish illegal employers.
Yet critics warn that either Portugal must press harder to cut off the problem at its roots, or this country of just under 10 million people, currently working hard to put its financial house in order and join Europe's economic mainstream, could see its future development jeopardized.
"A country's children are its future, and unless more is done in education and family support so children don't have to work, then Portugal is in severe danger of not just remaining Europe's poor neighbor, but sliding even further back," says Susana Williams, an anthropologist specializing in human rights and development and author of a 1991 study on Portuguese child labor. "It's not a short-term problem but one that hits the country with a negative impact for generations."
Portugal is not alone among developed countries with a child- labor problem. According to a recent report by the International Labor Organization in Washington, Italy and Spain exploit hundreds of thousands of child laborers. The organization estimates the number of children working worldwide in often dangerous and life-threatening conditions to be in the hundreds of millions. The United States, too, is experiencing a growing problem, especially among immigrant children and in agriculture and textiles.
When Ms. Williams completed her study of Portugal last year for Britain's Anti-Slavery Society, she estimated children working illegally at 200,000 - a figure she says was corroborated by labor inspectors she interviewed.
Some government officials now estimate child laborers at 15,000 - a number Williams says "has no relation to reality."
Carlos Carvalho, a member of the National Council of the UGTP, a national labor union that has long spoken out against child labor, says enforcement efforts probably reduced the number of child workers to 50,000 in recent years, before rising living costs and other forces sent the numbers shooting back up.
"What the growing attention to the problem in Portugal has done is drive it underground," says Williams. "There certainly are fewer children actually working in the factories, but now they are working at home or in the small subcontracting shops that are springing up."
Government officials insist the problem is a generational one that stems from uneducated parents who also worked at a young age and find it normal for their children to do the same. The problem will disappear as living and education standards increase, they say.
But critics like Mr. Carvalho say blaming parents is not enough. "These parents say it's either work or the street and drugs, so the government has a stronger role to play in insisting that the classroom is actually the only promising option for these children," he says.
"Government and the rest of us as well must see that strong measures are taken so that children can succeed in education, fulfill themselves, and thus break out of this syndrome," says Eugenio Fonseca, president of the Roman Catholic relief organization, Caritas, in Setubal, south of Lisbon. "It's only truly educated children who won't feel the need to exploit their children in the same way."
Williams adds that many well-meaning parents see collapsing industries and uncertain future job markets and conclude that a child is better off learning any skill and making money now.
"More has to be done to bring down dropout rates that are as high as 40 percent after primary school," she says. "More schools are needed as well as better job creation. Sanctions [against labor-law violators] have a short-term effect," she adds, "but it's these other measures that will have the long-term effect."
European organizations like the Anti-Slavery Society became increasingly interested in child labor in southern Europe, Williams says, when they realized the problem was being compounded by Europe's economic integration and industrial trends to tap into the south's lower wages.
"So many of the industries these children are working in are export-oriented," says Williams, "so it becomes a European problem."
The EC's executive Commission in Brussels has propose child-labor legislation, but it has met firm opposition from Portugal, which says it is weaker than what Portugal already has on its books. "I have to agree," says Williams. "If the set of loopholes they proposed is the best they have, it's not very good."
Chances of passing an EC law any time soon appear weak for other reasons. The proposed legislation called for a Community-wide work-age minimum of 15 years. But Britain, which holds the EC's revolving six-month presidency and determines what issues are addressed, is in no hurry to change its own legal working age of 14 years.
r Last in a three-part series.