Finally someone noticed.
For 12 long months - receiving whippings and threats but no pay - Hamadou Kane sweated in strangers' cornfields near the Ivory Coast town of Bouafl. A friend, Daouda Sangare, had been doing the same work even longer, 19 months.
Until recently the two teenagers from neighboring Mali hadn't drawn much attention from anyone in authority here.
Yet they are part of a global child-labor problem and finally did receive help.
In sub-Saharan Africa, some 73 million children between ages 10 and 14 work to earn money either for their families or themselves, says a 1996 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNICEF offices in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Some 30 percent work under "slavery" conditions, the study says.
"In many countries there are people who go around telling parents to send their kids to the cities to work for a certain amount of money," says Ahmar Toure, deputy director of the ILO's West African regional office. "Parents tend to believe in that, not knowing it's virtual slavery that their children are going into.... I don't see any parents, no matter how poor, who will sell their children if they really know what's going to happen."
Hamadou and Daouda are among thousands of children estimated to have been smuggled into Ivory Coast to work under harsh conditions.
Now they have a champion.
Immigrant workers may be part of a normal exchange between economies. But "taking advantage of children" is a different matter to Fassiriman Dembele, the Malian consul general in Ivory Coast. His home country remains one of the world's poorest. Its gross domestic product is a quarter that of neighboring Ivory Coast. Malian Embassy officials say at least a few million Malian immigrant workers have come here to make a living, including those who come during crop seasons.
Yet no one seemed to know of the problem of exploited children until a few older men from Mali escaped and made their way to the door of Mr. Dembele's office to seek help. The consul himself inspected a farming area near Bouafl, northwest of Abidjan, where he found 65 children out of 245 Malian workers.
The children told him they were promised $100 to $200 a year working in the fields. None of them, however, had ever been paid.
"The border guards were probably bribed to let them through," Dembele says, when asked why no one knew the children were here illegally. Ivorian labor officials say they are cooperating with the Malian Embassy in solving the problem.
The children, who are as young as 12, say they were lured from their homes by truck drivers who promised good jobs in restaurants. Few, if any, ever made it to the cities. Some ended up being "sold" to farm owners for about $25 to $30 each, says Dembele. "The drivers say to the plantation owner, 'All you have to do is pay for his passage,' " he says. "Then the child is left at the farm."
Penniless and unable to pay back the passage fee to farm owners, the children have no choice but to stay and work. Some child laborers found by Malian Embassy officials in a raid on a farm near the Ivorian capital of Yamoussoukro in May said they had to work up to 18 hours a day without a break.
It is illegal under Malian and Ivorian laws to hire children under 18 in full-time jobs. Malian consul Dembele, therefore, had the authority to retrieve the children without compensating their employers. He sent home all 65 boys he found. He is still busy, with 53 remaining farming areas to inspect.