|© UNICEF video|
|A government inspector interviews a child worker at a flower farm.|
By Mario Diaz and Christian Mejia
QUITO, Ecuador, 13 April 2005 - Following a negative Human Rights Watch report in 2002, Ecuador’s government has made good on a promise to address the growing problem of child labour in the country. In 2004, the Labour Ministry appointed teams of inspectors to monitor workplaces in 22 provinces around the country and has continued to strengthen its national surveillance system.
With support from UNICEF, the International Labour Organization, and local governments, the teams now make routine visits to places such as flower farms and banana plantations, where most child labour activity takes place.
In accordance with the law, they are required to remove any child under the age of fifteen from the workplace or any adolescent who works more than six hours a day. They are also instructed to check for dangerous or unhealthy labor conditions for children.
Since the the inspectors were appointed in April 2004, hundreds of children have been recovered.
“This inspection has a broader scope than to examine the child worker. It also involves all areas concerning the workplace; health, work policy, social environment, and other related issues,” explains Monica Suarez, who wrote the inspection manual used by inspectors.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, Ecuadorian children as young as eight labour in banana fields and packing plants where they are exposed to toxic pesticides and are required to work with sharp knives. They often have little job security and refrain from organizing because they fear getting fired.
“Eradicating child labour not only depends on government institutions, but we also have to engage the factory owner, business managers and all the private sector,” says Head Monitor for the National Ministry of Labour, Bladimir Cordoba.
Even though the government programmes have shown positive results, progress has been slow. According to UNICEF, six percent of Ecuadorian children between the ages of five and 14 are still engaged in some form of child labour. Also, Ecuador is the largest banana exporter in the world. To keep production costs down and stay competitive, plantation owners often turn to child labour.
The 1998 Constitution specifically calls for children in Ecuador to be protected in the workplace against economic exploitation, or conditions that may hinder a minor’s personal development or education. However, the government only began enforcing them last year after the United States threatened sanctions.
“Children remain vulnerable. That’s why national enterprises are urged to adopt codes of conduct guaranteeing that neither they nor their subcontractors will employ children in conditions that violate their rights. Social policies must be developed to take into account the best interests of the child and include measures to protect those interests,” says UNICEF Ecuador Representative, Paul Martin.
These new initiatives can only work if children who are recovered are successfully kept out of the workplace. UNICEF is also working to create awareness in communities and to provide the type of support—education, health, parental guidance—that will prevent them from going back to work.