Addressing Child Labour In Ghana – Urgent Effort Needed

June 12, 2014 is the World Day Against Child Labour. This day is set aside each year by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to draw the world’s attention to the millions of children around the world whose rights are being denied. In Ghana the day will be marked by the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations with a grand durbar at the Teachers Hall in Accra.

The ILO estimate that globally there were over 168 million children aged 5-17 years involved in child labour in 2012, down from 215 million in 2015. The world as a whole has therefore made a significant progress in the fight against child labour. Data in our part of the world is not reliable, but it is estimated that over 1.3 million of those children still suffering today are in Ghana.

In June 2010 the Government of Ghana launched a comprehensive multi-sector National Plan of Action (NPA) aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labour in our country by 2015 – just one year ahead of the deadline stipulated by UNICEF.

June 2015 is now only 12 months away, and we are still confronted with the sight of a conspicuous number of children selling on the streets during school hours. Others can be found down mines, on plantations, or locked away in private homes. Child Labour in the fishing industry on Lake Volta is one of the single most dehumanizing of all the situations – and the ILO estimates that there are over 49,000 children toiling there today.

But is it any surprise when we are failing to resource the very institutions which are supposed to lead the fight against child labour? Two years since the NPA was launched – and a few years since the 35-member National Steering Committee on Child Labour, which is the highest body to oversee the overall coordination of the NPA, was established – yet Ghana still does not know how many children are involved nationwide on child labour, let alone how many affected children are receiving help. In 2014 we are still quoted figures from the same Ghana Statistical Service Child Labour survey done in 2001.

The Child Labour Unit of the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations is heavily dependent on ILO and UNICEF for its work. Over half way through the year The Human Trafficking Secretariat of the Ministry for Gender, Children and Social Protection is yet to receive its 2014 budgetary allocation, which is less than GH¢200,000! The Human Trafficking Fund, which is a creation of the Human Trafficking Law, has been empty for years. The Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Ghana Police Service has opened offices in almost all ten regions in Ghana. Yet it does not have the resources to move to conduct swoops on traffickers. While the Children’s Act 1998 continuous to receive international praises for being one of the most comprehensive law on children’s right, in practice it sits impotently on the desks of the police while our children continue to suffer.

It therefore came as a surprise last week when the Honourable Antwi Boasiako Sekyere, outgoing Deputy Minister of Employment and Labour Relations, said that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had highly commended Ghana for the strides it has made in addressing child labour. ECOWAS!

I am just wondering on what basis ECOWAS commend the situation in Ghana today? We obviously have several good but unenforced laws and policies to protect children. The NPA is very comprehensive. The Children’s Act is good. The Human Trafficking law is up to international standard. The Domestic Violence Act is water-tight. In addition we have several ailing social intervention programmes such as the capitation grant, the school feeding programme, and the National Health Insurance Scheme.

But did ECOWAS look beyond the theory of paper documents and slick presentations and visit the reality of our country? Did they leave their comfortable hotel rooms to count the number of children on the streets who would have flocked to offer them chewing gum to buy? Were they able to visit Rome near Buipe on Lake Volta to see those children who work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, forced to dive, and who eats once a day with no access to education and medical care, and who are tortured daily for no reason? Did they see those children who live in gated households in Accra and Kumasi, and whose work schedule also includes sexual satisfaction of the male children of their mistresses? Did they see improvement in the conditions of service of the Accra night girls whose work begins at 8:pm and ends at 5:am?

For your information ECOWAS, some of Ghana’s children are offered for sale at a reduced price of $31, a lifetime of slave labour included! Through the work of Challenging Heights, there is a woman currently in jail who sold two children for GH¢80 to a fisherman on Lake Volta earlier this year. There are records of children who were traded for bread to work on Lake Volta. A trafficker went to jail for this transaction also, but only because of the work of Challenging Heights – an NGO – not the state. These are not mere stories, but real tragedies happening in Ghana right now.

I acknowledge that there have been a number of efforts both on the part of government and on the part of civil society. I don’t believe the prevalence of child labour is the same as it was in 2001 though we don’t know how much less. We have made some progress that we cannot show statistically. But government effort is not sufficient, and it is too donor dependent!

I will like to commend UNICEF, and the ILO under IPEC program for the efforts in supporting Ghana to address child labour. But for these organizations, we would not have had the NPA, and we would not have had the Human Trafficking Law yet. The two international bodies continue to spend millions of Dollars in supporting both the government and grass root organizations to address the issues of vulnerability and child labour.

I recall UNICEF’s support to my organization, Challenging Heights, to remove several children from child labour situations and to get them in schools. In the last nine years Challenging Heights has rescued and supported a little under 1,200 children from trafficking on Lake Volta. Our support has extended to 950 women across our communities in Ghana. Last year alone, 109 of the 1,640 vulnerable children we supported were directly rescued from forced labour on Lake Volta. In less than ten years we have supported nearly 10,000 vulnerable children across 40 communities in six districts in Ghana, many of whom could have fallen victim to child labour.

Doing advocacy on this is very complicated. For instance, how do you convince a bank to support the cause when their employees are the very people who recruit girls from the village to take care of their children while they work? It is reported that a number of police officers and their families supplement their income by sending recruited village children to sell “pure water” on the street and bringing the money to them. Meanwhile, desperate politicians wait for these children to grow into human thugs for violent partisan use.

Almost all the big corporate companies in Ghana seem to have a vested interest in seeing children miss out on their education and labour on the streets instead, selling scratch cards, water products, gums etc to increase the corporations’ profits.

As NGOs like Challenging Heights spend time and resources bringing trafficked children back, ever more are put into the same situation of forced labour. It is about time we say no to this cycle of perpetuating slavery in Ghana. We all can determine that we will send no child to the lake this year. We can do this as a country if we don’t allow anyone to go looking for village children to exploit. We Ghanaians can stop sending children into slavery if we will all determine that we are not going to employ minors in our homes!
Faith leaders in Ghana have an important role. The majority of children we have rescued come from Church Communities. Shockingly, the slave masters they are forced to serve call themselves Christians too.

On Sundays these captors give offerings, and the money for such offerings would have been generated with the sweat of forced children labour. The pastors pray for more prosperity for their congregation without finding out at whose expense the prosperity is being generated.

This year, we must turn the tide of child exploitation, and make sure that no child is sent to Lake Volta. We need every pastor and minister to speak out against child trafficking – forbidding every member of their congregation from either using child labour or sending children away to work.