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Kenyan children carry burden of forced work

The theme of this year’s World Day against Child Labour is “Children shouldn’t work in fields but on dreams,” but in the country, this vice forms the fourth most reported cases

Betty Muindi and Sandra Wekesa @BettyMuindi and @AndayiSandra

Martin Wafula* is just 10 years old, but he already has an exhausting job he carries out every weekday from midday to dusk and over the weekends from dawn till dusk. Just a few months ago, he started working as a casual labourer in maize farms in his neighbourhood in Kinyoro, Trans Nzoia county.

He gets paid about Sh50 to Sh250 shilling depending on the job, which ranges from tilling the land, planting to weeding.  In April, with the onset of the rainy season, when farmers in the county started planting, Wafula took up casual jobs.

When he was not in school, he rose at 6am, dressed in long-sleeved shirt, jeans cut into shorts, and old rubber shoes and headed to farms nearby to ask for work. He’d work the whole day, only going home at 5pm. 

“I want to help my grandmother,” says Wafula. I am not forced to do this job, I choose to do it on my own because I need to buy books, uniform and get school supplies for myself,” he says adding that sometimes he buys food for the family.

Phylis Neyoke works at a farm. Photo/SANDRA WEKESA

Wafula lives with his 65-year-old grandmother. His mother got married to another man and left him under her care. 

He started to work when his grandmother, a local liquor brewer, got too ill to continue with her business.

Phylis Nekoye*, another 11-year-old farm labourer, 50 kilometres away in Bituyu, Kimilili constituency, says she does not like working on the farm, but she is forced by circumstances. “It’s heavy work, but if I don’t work I will not eat. There’s no choice,” she adds.

Minimum age

The Employment Act, 2007, and the Children’s Act 2001, define a child as a person below the age of 18 years. The Employment Act, Part VII provides for protection of children including protection from the worst forms of child labour.

Section 56 prohibits employing a child below 13 years in any form of undertaking. However, it allows employment of children aged 13-16 for light work, defining them as employable. However, neither does the Act define light work nor provide protection for children in such employment; it leaves the discretion to the minister. 

In section 58 and 59, the minimum age for employment in an industrial undertaking is 16, unless the child is an apprentice under the Industrial Training Act (Cap 237, Laws of Kenya). The law also puts a time limit for a child in an industrial undertaking to between 6.30am and 6.30pm.

This minimum age restriction does not apply to employees who belong to the same family as the employer, unless the undertaking is dangerous to the life, health or morals of the persons employed. There is no legal minimum working age in the agricultural and services sectors, or for domestic work. 

However, parents who send their children to work in the fields argued that they do so to teach their children the value of hard work and to fend for themselves. Others argued working on family land should not be considered as child labour, but giving a helping hand. 

Hampers wellbeing

Anne Waichinga, Associate Director for Education and Child Protection at World Vision Kenya, says child labour entails involvement of children in work that hampers their wellbeing and holistic development.

“For example, in the counties that World Vision Kenya works, there are cases of children engaged in herding, domestic chores, fishing, farming, hawking and child prostitution at the expense of their education as well as cognitive, physical, emotional and social development.

Hence child labour is exploitative, detrimental and hazardous to children,” she says, adding that in 2016, a study by Unesco revealed that 35 per cent of all children aged five to 14 years were working and that 23 per cent of seven to 14-year-olds combined work and school. 

Waichinga further explains that child work comprises age appropriate tasks assigned to a child under supervision and support of a caregiver with the intent of teaching the child relevant living skills and positive values. Child labour, on the other hand, is majorly work beyond the child’s capability. Work that robs boys and girls of their childhood and opportunities to enjoy their rights such as go to school.

Numerous reports

Martha Sunda, a counsellor at Childline Kenya, the National Child Helpline 116 Service in Kenya receives several reports of child labour every month from all over the country. She adds that from 2006 to 2016 there have been 3,123 reports of child labour, making it the fourth most reported cases after crime, murder and rape. She strongly believes that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that many more cases of child labour go unreported.

She adds that children are lured with promises of being taken to school in the urban centres which most of the time fail. “The attraction of “quick” money, without necessarily having to present academic papers to be considered for cheap labour, forces one to participate in the economic sustenance of the family, especially for families living in poverty,” she adds.

“Although sometimes it may be presented as being the lesser evil compared to children languishing in poverty, child labour tends to rob children of their rights and they end up being a burden to the society,” she explains, adding that some of the negative outcomes of such situations include children maturing too quickly for their age resulting in the underdevelopment of their social skills.

“There is a sense of hopelessness as many of these children become social misfits who are not able to maximising their full potential. They end up bitter with themselves and the world, and may become hostile as a form of self-defence. Many children in situations of labour are also abused in other ways including physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” she cautions.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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