News

Child workers flood city streets

Sending children to work illegal, says CDA

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Sunday Observer reporter husseyd@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 22, 2012    

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THIRTEEN-year-old Dane dreams of being a lawyer someday. It's a dream that seems a long way off right now as he joins the throng of children who have swarmed the streets of Kingston since the start of the summer holidays hawking treats and wiping windscreens for coins.

Dane is from the community of 'Back-To' in the Three Miles area of Majesty Gardens, Kingston, but from 9:00 am until 7:00 pm his 'summer school' is the Trafalgar/Hope roads intersection.

I met Dane while working undercover as a bag juice seller on the streets of Kingston. The small-bodied boy said his parents are very much alive, but he doesn't live with them because of the physical abuse meted out to him. According to him, he has three siblings who remained at home, while he went to live with his grandmother.

"My grandmother don't really work," he explained. "Sometimes she do a little someting, like clean up somewhere; but she get pay every two months or so."

As a result, he has to help make ends meet, and from the average $1,500 that he makes daily, he gives his grandmother $1,000 and keeps the rest.

This is Dane's second year hustling on the streets. He said he got started by saving what little money he got for lunch to buy a $400 squeegee (windscreen wiper). Sometimes, even while school is in session, the grade seven student at Calabar Primary and Junior High in Kingston said he heads for the traffic lights, bottle of water and his hard-earned squeegee in hand, on a mission to eventually, somehow, achieve his goal of practising law.

As young and as physically small as he is, motorists, annoyed by his insistence on wiping their windscreens, have no problem hurling expletives, insults and threats at him; though in general he is fairly polite in his approach to the motorists. But, from time to time, Dane and his fellow windscreen wipers would anger their target customers by spraying water on the windscreens and leaving them uncleaned when their offer to clean them is refused.

One man alighted from his vehicle hurling insults and threatening to beat one of the lads if he did not dry the water off. The child fled until the lights turned green and the motorist had gone. "Him cyaan ketch mi fi beat mi," the amused child said.

Beside Dane at the traffic light is his friend, Dwayne. He, too, is 13 years old and attends Seaward Town Primary School. Dwayne said his mother is dead, and he has to help out his father -- with whom he lives, along with three siblings. His father only works sporadically, so the money his son earns from cleaning car windscreens is critical.

According to Dwayne, his father does not mind him working on the streets and is not inclined to worry if he gets home as late as 11:00 pm. He sometimes makes up to $1,000 a day, of which he gives his father $400 to help run the household.

Both boys, their small frames making them seem no older than 10, dance between the moving vehicles that sometimes brush past them. Oblivious to the danger, they occasionally hop onto large buses and vans before smoothly hopping off, skipping between the bumpers as they manoeuvre their way back to the sidewalks.

They are good-looking boys and draw the attention of many passing motorists, curious as to the whereabouts of their parents and why they are out on the streets. They seemed accustomed to the questions, their facial expressions nearly blank as they mumble a response.

The children explained that while they are from the Three Miles area, they opt to 'work' uptown because they are constantly harassed by the older, more seasoned hustlers at the Portia Simpson Miller Square traffic light closer to home.

They claim the elder hustlers often take their earnings from them.

As the heat from the afternoon summer sun became intense, they took a break, purchased two $15 'bag' juices -- paid for them from their earnings -- and sat on the hot sidewalk to enjoy them. That was their only 'meal' until late evening.

Eventually, the heat took an obvious toll on their young bodies and they grew sluggish, less enthusiastic, but not yet reaching their target earnings for the day, they persevered.

A few metres away, 11 year old Kayla from Kingston West sells ripe plums to motorists. She has a no-nonsense look on her face and is not the least bit shy. Beside her is her mother, who said she has five children -- Kayla being the youngest and the most enterprising.

I paced the street beside Kayla's mother, both of us shouting out 'Bag juice! Bag juice!' to passing motorists while holding up large transparent bags containing $25 bags of fruit juice and $15 bagged drinks. The woman beamed with pride at the way her young daughter handled herself on the road.

"You think she easy?" she said. "Anything she sell is for herself. You see all the sneakers that she have on? Is she buy it herself."

She said Kayla has been selling on the streets with her since she was nine years old and in grade three. She complained that her older children -- ranging from age 14 to 25 -- would sometimes refuse to sell on the streets, or were not particularly good at it. She said one, in particular, would "just eat off the money".

Kayla walked between the vehicles as they waited at the traffic lights, asking motorists to buy her bags of plums for $100 each.

Her innocent appearance seemed to melt the hearts of many motorists, who seemed anxious to 'support' her.

"She brave, man, she nah back down from nothing," her mother said. "Anytime the older ones them want to get something done and dem 'fraid, all dem do is call Kayla and she just up front and do it."

The mother seemed oblivious to all the dangers that lurk on the street for her child.

It is parents and children like these that give Superintendent Radcliffe Lewis, head of the police traffic division, the biggest headaches.

Lewis, who in 2010, began a thrust to get boys off the public thoroughfares in the Corporate Area, confirmed that since the 2012 summer break, more children like Kayla, Dane and Dwayne are on the streets and efforts to remove them have been futile.

"More of them are out there now... You find that you have some little tiny ones, and those now, you can't arrest. They are far, far underage," Lewis told Sunday Observer last Friday.

"We take them in and call the mothers. We speak to the mothers and sometimes warn them, but there is not much we can do," he said, pointing to simple economics being the driving reason they are on the streets.

He was less inclined to be patient with the street boys.

"These little boys, they abuse people, especially females (motorists). They are terrible, because their life is kind of different from normal lives. They using indecent language, they do all sorts of things," Lewis said, adding that in the majority of the cases he has come across, these youth are fatherless.

"If they had fathers they wouldn't be out there," he said. "So most of the times is the mothers we have to call."

The traffic head said sometimes the police call in the Child Development Agency (CDA), also to little avail. "Sometimes they come when they are called but they want funds to deal with their business too," Lewis said. "And funds are what we are short of."

But when this was put to her, Audrey Budhi, director of Children and Family Programmes at the CDA, said when a report is made regarding a street child, an investigation is done. She said the investigator takes whatever information is provided in the report to locate the child, then efforts are made to identify the parent(s) or guardian.

"Intervention takes place when the agency works with the parent and the necessary counselling is done with the child to prevent a reoccurrence," Budhi said. "Findings determine the steps taken, and each one is done on a case-by-case basis. Referrals are done to the various government agencies or non-government agencies to assist where necessary."

She explained that if it is found that a child is working on the streets for economic reasons, the CDA will work along with agencies, such as the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) to provide the necessary support or with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security Child Labour Unit.

"If a parent cannot be identified, the child is placed in a place of safety and is put before the court for care and protection. The judge will then make an order," she explained.

But according to Budhai, there are instances where the investigator has had problems locating the child because the information provided in the report was not adequate. For example, the child might change the time he is normally seen at the location or change locations frequently.

Marva Ximinnies, director of the Child Labour Unit in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, said she has no current statistics to show that the number of children out on the streets has increased since the summer holidays.

"I don't know that we are able to confirm that there are more children out," Ximinnies said. "The last research that was done in terms of street and working children was done in 2000, and that time it had indicated that there were 6,000 children who were actually either living or living and working on the streets," she said.

"We don't presently have current data. We are intending to conduct at least a baseline survey to provide us with more current data because you know the information is really dated and anything that we have is really anecdotal to say that we are noticing more children out."

Statistics from a national survey conducted last year through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security showed that at least 16,000 Jamaican children, ages five to 17 years, were engaged in some form of economic activity, even as the Government tries to stem the problem through work with the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Up to June last year, just over 7,000 children were engaged in "hazardous work", which includes prostitution, the production of pornographic material, and child slavery.

Ximinnies said parents found guilty of allowing their child to work illegally are not arrested and charged, but are rather taken before the courts after the necessary investigations are done.

"We don't necessarily arrest, they can be taken before the courts and we do the necessary investigations. So it's more a process. We try to identify the parents, and based on the investigation determine whether the parent is able to adequately provide, and most times they are not, so we try to work with the family and try to get them streamlined. We would refer the person to the Path and there is a Family Services Division within the Child Development Agency.

"So we try to assist to streamline them and ensure that there is some kind of assistance that is given to them," she said. "So it's not a case where you go and arrest the mother... It's not that we are trying to be cruel, but trying to provide support and assistance to the families that are in need."

Ximinnies, though, acknowledged that government organisations need to find a way to develop other strategies to deter persons from allowing their children to work.

The CDA is reminding parents that it is an offence under the Child Care and Protection Act for parents to send children out to beg or work.

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