By Nuria Segura
QUITO – Ecuador this year practically eradicated child labor in trash dumps, but there are still more than 300,000 children who work in agriculture, as street vendors, in slaughterhouses or as domestic laborers.
Deputy Labor Minister Francisco Vacas told Efe that of the approximately 2,000 children who had been working in dumps at the beginning of 2010, only 29 still ply that trade.
However, according to figures compiled by the Unicef office in Ecuador, there are still about 340,000 child workers throughout the country, a figure that is equivalent to 13 percent of the youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17.
Vacas said that, to eradicate child labor at the dumps, at the beginning of this year, government officials performed inspections on the 225 domestic waste disposal sites around the country.
Starting with that, authorities went on to reach agreements with the municipalities prohibiting children from working at the dumps.
“Now ongoing inspections are continuing and when we find children at a dump, the first time we impose a punishment (on the people who operate the facility), a monetary fine, and the second time we close the dump,” Vacas said.
The deputy minister said that the idea is to eradicate child labor at the dumps before the end of this year, a campaign that had the cooperation of Unicef.
Vacas emphasized that this challenge was established because among all the jobs performed by children “this is the worst.”
The Unicef representatives in Ecuador, Cristian Munduate, said that child labor in dumps concerns him because of the effect on “the health of the children, the emission of gases” from the waste products, as well as because the youngsters play with the trash and “run the risk of cutting or injuring themselves severely.”
Once authorities manage to distance children from this type of work, the latter will be helped with scholarships, awarded both by the government and private foundations, so that they can return to school, Munduate said.
Vacas said that so this aid is used correctly, inspections will be conducted at the homes of the children to ensure that they are not returning to work and are attending classes.
But the dumps are not the only sites where children are working and if one walks through the streets of Quito children can be seen performing all kinds of menial jobs.
For example, at the intersection of Republica and Amazonas, two of the capital’s main avenues, is the El Jardin shopping center and in front of it dozens of children can be seen running about and playing while they are selling magazines, candies, toys and others are cleaning the windshields of automobiles or shining the shoes of passersby.
Children are not just working on the streets but also in the fields, on banana plantations, in slaughterhouses, in construction and they are even doing household tasks, Vacas said.
He also said that there are different reasons why children labor in this way: “There is nobody else at home who generates income and the child is forced to work, children ... are employed during the vacation periods or children ... accompany their parents to work, the badly-named free labor.”
Munduate said that in Ecuador most children who perform tasks such as these are between the ages of 12 and 17, “which has an impact on the interruption of (their) education.”
In addition, he said that most of the child labor occurs among the social groups with fewer economic resources, like the Indians or the African-Ecuadorians, while this activity is barely registered among the children of mixed-blood people or whites.
Vacas said that the idea is to continue moving forward and expanding this initiative from the dumps to other areas.
He said that in two or three years the government hopes to be able to eliminate child labor in other problem areas including “the banana plantations, fishing, domestic work and the slaughterhouses,” which are physically dangerous and/or are occupations that are otherwise harmful to a person’s health.
For that to be possible, Munduate said that authorities need to “make (society) aware” that children must have “an opportunity to study and for recreation” instead of having to go to work. EFE