In the wake of the earthquake which destroyed huge portions of Port-au-Prince and sent Haiti reeling, at least one industry is coming back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, that industry is child labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has said that child labor in Haiti is on the brink of a boom, putting thousands of children at risk for being abused and exploited via labor. Here’s why Haiti is seeing a child labor boom.
Since the quake, tens of thousands of jobs in Haiti have been lost in sectors across the board. Many of these were small businesses; ILO estimates that before the quake, one in five houses in Haiti ran some sort of business from the home. With almost half-a-million houses destroyed or seriously affected, that means possibly hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs and livelihoods were crushed. Haiti has also been a large supplier of the garment industry. There are over 200 garment factories in Haiti, and of those about a third were destroyed and another third damaged in some way. And many other Haitian businesses were damaged — from shops to restaurants to agricultural businesses. As businesses try and rebuild, there will be a demand for cheap labor.
At the same time, the quake has left thousands of children orphaned, separated from family, homeless, or otherwise more vulnerable, increasing the supply of potential child laborers. There is some demand in Haiti, during their efforts to rebuild, but there is also demand in other countries. Already, both Haitian and Dominican officials have seen children being smuggled over the border from Haiti into the Dominican Republic. From there, some disappear into child labor in the DR, while others are shipped to other countries to work. But regardless of the route, where there is supply and demand, there is a market for child labor.
One of the biggest and most immediate problems facing child advocates who are working to prevent the Haitian earthquake from becoming a catalyst for a child labor boom is the issue of working conditions and pay. In some cases, for older teens, working can actually be a benefit, especially when the local school is still being rebuilt. However, there are no mechanisms to prevent the exploitation of these children. Many of them are lured into dangerous industries, where they face health dangers and poor sanitation. They are often forced to work long hours for little pay with no breaks. And there is no way to ensure that temporary work for a teen while the local school is being rebuilt will remain temporary, no way to ensure children can leave their work when they want to.
The child labor market is booming in Haiti because there has been an influx of both supply and demand. It will take significant efforts on the part of the Haitian government and the international organizations helping rebuild Haiti to work to reduce both the supply and the demand for child labor. Because only then will we be able to build a stronger Haiti without sacrificing her children.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army