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Life | Danger – Children at Work!

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Central America. Most Guatemalans exist on subsistence farming, with over eighty per cent living on less than two dollars a day. In the San Juan Sacatepequez region, just two hours drive from the capital, Guatemala City, even the land is poor, and making fireworks has become the major source of income for the local people. Eight out of every ten families in the region are outworkers, producing firecrackers at home. It’s a labour intensive process, with children often starting work at the age of six.

Exposed to explosive chemicals like potassium nitrate and gunpowder, there are no controls whatever to regulate health and safety, and no guarantees on how much families are paid for their work. Accidents are frequent, and often fatal; children, too often, are the victims. This Life programme films with campaigners working to persuade local people to give up fireworks production and switch to alternative, less dangerous ways of earning a living – alternatives that can allow their children to go to school and gain the kind of education that, development experts everywhere agree, is essential for sustainable development in poor countries like Guatemala. But, the programme also asks, are all governments really committed to making this happen? Or do some benefit so much from the profits that child labour brings that they’re prepared to turn a blind eye to international agreements to stop it? According to a new report from the International Labour Organisation, 170 million children around the world are employed in hazardous work.

potassium nitrate and gunpowderIn the San Juan Sacatepequez region, just two hours drive from the capital, Guatemala City, even the land is poor, and making fireworks has become the major source of income for the local people. Eight out of every ten families in the region are outworkers, producing firecrackers at home. It’s a labour-intensive process, with children often starting work at the age of six.

Exposed to explosive chemicals like potassium nitrate and gunpowder, there are no controls whatever to regulate health and safety, and no guarantees on how much families are paid for their work. Horrible accidents happen on a regular basis. Children, too often, are the victims. This Life programme features interviews with the children and their parents, and with campaigners working to persuade local people to give up fireworks production and switch to alternative, less dangerous ways of earning a living.

Martha and Briyan were playing with firework wicks when something made a spark and they were both badly burned. Their mother explains: “It’s been 15 days like this – she hasn’t eaten or slept. Nothing, nothing – she’s just like this… Every night she screams and cries and so does her brother.” Unfortunately, making fireworks pays better than anything else in this remote area. “If we work with baskets, they don’t sell – that’s why we are still working with this.”

Boris Galván, of the NGO Asociación de Apoyo Integral, is trying to help these children. “Children are not aware of the danger they’re being exposed to. The results can be as serious as death. As well as this, they lose social skills, they only focus on the production – it’s very absorbing. They don’t even have time to play, and miss school to work.” In fact half the population is illiterate. Boris’s association is trying to encourage more families to take out credit to expand or set up new businesses. The idea is that then they could make enough money in their new business to be able to send their children to school and gain the kind of education that, development experts everywhere agree, is essential for sustainable development in poor countries like Guatemala.

Oswaldo used to spend his days making fireworks. But since his family signed up to the credit scheme he now attends school and hopes one day to be a teacher. His mother, Hortensia, explains the family’s decision: “We earned more making fireworks because they’re easier to make, they’re easier than working in other things. But there is a risk. But to stop making fireworks – well, you just have to be smart: maybe you make less money, but you’re no longer in danger.” Now they grow tomatoes and other vegetables.

the fireworks businessBut some families see no other option than to stay in the fireworks business. For them, the Association plans to build a factory with all the minimum safety conditions so that they won’t carry on working in their homes, with all the risks that involves. It also plans to give families loans to provide them with working capital and help increase their income, and encourage them not to rely on their children’s labour but send them to school.

That is the most important thing, as illiterate Rafael realises: “I can’t read. I can’t read or write at all – nothing. And I don’t know anything about letters. But with my children – yes, I am trying. The oldest and the little ones, I am trying to get them to school – if I have money.”

The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is working with the NGOs and the Government to change attitudes, get small factories built, and encouraging new economic activities. The local mayor is sceptical that the Government will really do much to help, because of corruption. But Blanca Guerra de Najera, Vice Minister for Labour, says the real problems lie with the private sector and the middle classes who avoid paying the taxes that the Government needs.

There are plenty of laws against children doing hazardous work, but the laws are not enforced. And the Guatemalan Government is not alone in apparently turning a blind eye to international agreements to stop it. According to a new report from the International Labour Organisation, 170 million children around the world are employed in hazardous work.

RELATED LINKS:

ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) has a project with the Guatemalan Government to eliminate child labour in the fireworks industry which you can read about here. ILO has recently published updated global estimates on child labour – you can download the report in Acrobat format by clicking here.

Learn about Guatemala from GuatemalaWeb Website and its page on the Highlands region.

The Global March Against Child Labour cites Guatemala in its report Out of the Shadows as a country with one of the worst records in this field.

The World Health Organisation has a Gateway to Children’s Environmental Health, with many links, and a Task Force on the Protection of Children’s Environmental Health.

The Canadian organization Free the Children has a campaign to eliminate child labour. And the World Bank, ILO and the Unicef Innocenti Centre have an inter-agency website on Understanding Children’s Work.

See also the OneWorld guide on Child Labour which has many links.

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