Child labour in Iran: a national epidemic

Child labour is a major issue in Iran. Millions of young children go uneducated and work various jobs for minimal wage instead. US sanctions on Iran have also caused more poverty, which has made it all the more appealing for poorer families to put their young ones to work.

child labour in Iran

As the car screeches to a halt at a traffic signal in the Iranian capital Tehran, children below 10 crowd the vehicle, trying their best to sell items like fresh flowers, microfiber towels, perfumes, face masks and disinfectants at a discount.

Wearing oversized unkempt clothes, these children try every marketing technique to sell their products to eke out a living.

Forced child labour in Iran: an epidemic in itself 

The phenomenon of forced child labor has assumed alarming proportions in Iran over recent years due to the recession accelerated by the tougher US sanctions, say experts

The oil-rich country, ranking third in terms of energy reserves, houses around 1.7 million child labourers, according to the UN data.

According to the Iranian parliament’s research center, around three million or 22% of children in Iran under the age of 18 are not enrolled in schools. Half of them are engaged in various works.

Abdolreza Fooladvand, head of the education department in Tehran, believes that around 140,000 children are not enrolled in schools in the country.

Iran not following international conventions 

While Iran is not a signatory to international conventions setting a minimum age for work, it has its laws to prevent children from working until the age of 15. The fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) have also set 15 years as the age for normal work at 18 years for hazardous work.

According to experts, there is vagueness in the child labor law adopted by Iran as it excludes domestic work, which means children can be employed despite the child labor convention.

The mechanism to oversee the implementation of the law, especially preventing young children from toiling in the sweltering summer heat, is also lacking, say experts.

Child labour more rampant among Afghan refugees 

The menace of child labor is more prominent among Afghan refugees. Fooladvand said around 81% of children engaged in labor in Iran are foreign nationals, mostly Afghan refugees.

Most of these Afghan children live in the slums of south Tehran, a less-expensive and heavily crowded area of the capital city.

They travel to different parts of the city, mostly bus stations, subways, traffic crossings, and sell an assortment of products – flowers, chewing gums, socks, and even poems of 14h century famous Persian poet Muḥammad Ḥafeẓ-e Shirazi known by his pen name Hafez.

Eight-year-old Nazari takes a bus every morning to reach the Azadi junction west of Tehran with his wares where people take buses to travel to other cities and provinces.

“I do it almost every day for the past two years and return to my home with empty stomach,” said the eight-year-old Afghan boy, who is eldest among three siblings. His parents had left Afghanistan over a decade ago. Nazari and his siblings were born in Iran. Two years ago, his parents got separated, leaving the burden to earn living on little Nazari.

“My mother also works but it is not enough to survive,” he said, sitting on a pavement, outside the Azadi Bus Junction.

“I wanted to study but if I study who will earn for the family, “he said.

Maryam,10, and her two little brothers, who also live in Tehran’s southern Shahr Rey area, stop every visitor going to Shah Abdul Azim shrine, urging them to buy a fortune poem written on a piece of paper.

“I make 20-25 toman (less than $2) a day if people show little kindness and buy these poems. I cannot do any heavy work yet and I also cannot study as I am the eldest child,” she said.

Social inequality exposed through child labour in Iran

Maryam’s family came to Iran only a few years ago. She was born in Afghanistan’s western Herat province, but her two brothers were born in Iran. Both her parents used to work in a local factory before the COVID-19 broke out.

In Iran, primary and secondary education is free for the Iranian nationals, while for the foreigners, including documented refugees, education is free up to the primary level.

“Not all refugees are equal, some are financially well-off and some live-in abject poverty. Forced labor is the result of difficult circumstances facing many of these families,” said Mohsen Ramazani, a university lecturer and social activist.

A few years ago, Iran’s labor ministry had prepared a report to prevent forced child labor based on the conventions of the ILO. The report studied the impact of pervasive poverty and growing economic volatility in the fight against this menace in Iran.

The report concluded that only poverty is not responsible for the prevalence of child labor. But low income and poor quality of life are also key determining factors.

Experts say that children need to be encouraged to attend schools and the country’s labor laws need to be tightened to protect children from forced labor.

New opportunities 

At an outreach center in southern Tehran, teenagers are learning to be journalists, while upstairs their mothers are fine-tuning their sewing skills and rushing to fill an order for hospital uniforms. The brand-new center in the working-class neighbourhood of Shahr-e Rey caters to hundreds of struggling families and Afghan refugees.

Read more: Iran’s new breed on poverty frontline

It’s a relatively new approach for Iran, where social welfare has often been left to informal groups based around the bazaar and mosque or fallen to large-scale government-controlled organizations. Today, privately-run charities are emerging, with managers, targets, and buzzwords such as “empowerment” and “skills-training”, and funded by wealthy business people who have made fortunes in booming industries such as private healthcare.

This center is run by the ILIA Foundation, created by social workers and members of the Nikan Hospital Group, who have partnered with UN refugee and health agencies to help around 1,000 families from deprived backgrounds. For now, these groups can only reach a small number of those in need but supporters say it is providing a model for future social work in Iran.

Recently, a documentary about child labour in Iran won an award at the Fajr film festival.

I hope people and officials help solve the problem of child labor, and we would not see child workers anywhere in our cities,” Majid said after accepting his award and called on cinematographer Hooman Behmanesh to the stage for presenting his award to him.

This shows that child labour in Iran is an issue that is finally being recognised, and some steps are being taken to reduce and rectify it. However, without putting solid laws in place, it may not be eradicated completely.

Anadolu with additional input by GVS News Desk

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