Tired of working? Fed up with having to get out of bed early every morning when there are so many more interesting things to do? Spare a few moments thought and little energy spreading the awareness for the millions of children who might ask themselves those very same questions. While yesterday was the International Day Against Child Labor, today millions of kids around the world still had to put on hold their universally accepted human rights and go to work instead.
You may have come across a few of them, as soon as you left the comfort zone of North America – before we got involved with Casa Esperanza in Panama City, our only moment of contact was during the few seconds at a red light: to rinse the dust from your mouth, you might buy a bottle of water from them; to rinse the dust from your windshield, they might climb onto a tire and wipe it clean. And then the lights change, the traffic roars off and these working children hopefully get to the side of that dirty, dangerous road in one piece to wait for the next opportunity. You might check for their shrinking figure in the side mirror as you build up speed – you might even wonder about the circumstances that put them there, managing other people’s road-dust.
These kids are, of course, just the more visible part of a worldwide phenomenon which just shouldn’t be happening – child labor. You might not catch sight of kids scurrying around the markets, from store to store. You probably won’t come across the thousands who work on farms throughout Central America. In Panama alone, one of the more developed countries in this region, there are 60,000 child workers.
A little backstory: After six months traveling south from the Mexicali border we have reached Panama City where we have decided to wait a few weeks for a new ferry service that will take us to South America. Trying to make light of the situation, I started calling it the ghost ship or fantasy boat because no one knows when it will sail or, even, where the damn thing is and already we’ve seen a dozen overlanders pass us by to load their vehicles onto container ships instead. The waiting, of course, is all part of our cunning plan – since leaving London, two years ago, we had the ambition to volunteer our time and energy with disadvantaged groups wherever we could – and, now, finally, we’re beginning to do that. Plus, of course, we get to know Panama City – a city of cosmopolitan character and immense variation: Skyscrapers at one end, poverty at the other; rainforest and jungle close by the region’s biggest container port and the engineering wonder of the Panama Canal itself.
So, thanks to the Muskoka Foundation we have signed up with Casa Esperanza who have worked to provide health and education services to the working youth of Panama for 20 years. We’ll be taking a small group of kids and teaching them some of the basics of digital photography – we’re not sure where it will lead; certainly a small exhibition or website for now – hopefully a long-term interest, hobby or even a career for the future. But, if our first day is anything to go by, I don’t doubt the determination of the kids themselves:
June 12th is International Day Against Child Labor. To mark the occasion, here in Panama City, Casa Esperanza had organized a conference to which they had invited the country’s media and many of their sponsors and affiliated groups, organizations and schools. What the conference wasn’t was a series of speeches from grown-ups, officers and politicians going on about how bad child labor is and what they were doing to fight it – instead we heard some remarkable and inspiring stories from some of the kids themselves.
We heard Eric, aged 15 from Colon, talk about the discrimination a working child faces – even at the precious moments they get at school, they might endure bullying from other kids and, at work, they will be badly treated. His point was that every human being is born free and equal even if, through no fault of the child, this equality is not sustained. From these young speakers, I understood that the problem of child labor is not merely the failure to provide education. Many child workers have some access to education but the poverty they grow up in forces them to work. Or simply, if they do not work, they will not eat. For Eric, choosing to go school instead of work meant that he would be hungry – he had to move away if a fellow student was eating, the smell would be too much – and, although he made that choice, many child workers can’t and eventually abandon their studies
Rudolfo, 15 years old, had spent many years working in scrap yards, markets and on the street selling matches. We learnt more about the physical dangers of the typical developing-world workplace: for some, it it’s the hot, hot sun baking the fields in the countryside. For others, the immense dangers of an industrial setting or the chances of being hit by a car on the streets. Not simply missing the education that is their human right but also having to suffer the occupational dangers of the adult world.
We also heard from Dalires, aged 12 from Boquete (yes, that posh, ex-pat enclave) where she worked with her father on a small coffee plantation. The rural setting is, in fact, where Casa Esperanza does much of their work – this is where you’ll find much of Panama’s poverty – families that are forced to enlist their children in fight for day-to-day survival even if their schooling suffers. For many, a working child that is sharing the responsibility of feeding the family is a good thing – the fact that they are forced to, however, is always bad and often, when Casa Esperanza try to help, they meet resistance from the parents themselves. Panama has had a law for many years now; that no child under the age of 14 should be working. I’m sure all the countries in Central America, and around the world, have such a law but the real problem is, of course, poverty – you really have to respect the efforts of Casa Esperanza in addressing this reality gap, and, of course, the children themselves who understand that they have a right to full education.