The Federal Government has raised the alarm over the growing trend of child labour in the country.
DAILY POST reports that the government raised the concern during the celebration of the 2023 World Day Against Child Labour (WDACL) when it dropped a staggering figure of 43 percent as the number of Nigerian children that are engaged in child labour.
The revelation has since become a talking point in certain quarters, with some people equating the scourge to modern day slavery.
The development also calls to mind the humanitarian work of a British crusader, William Wilberforce, who championed the campaign against slave trade in the early 19th Century.
His regard for the sanctity of human life was the driving force behind his campaign to end slavery at that time. Slavery reduced humanity to nothingness and human lives were valueless.
In fact, the society was a quintessence of the famous English philosopher, Thomas Hobbs’s picture of life in a state of nature – short, nasty, poor and brutish. So, in 1807, when an Act for the abolition of slave trade came into force, it was a big relief to most African countries, especially those that were under the British colony.
But, human beings in their wicked nature would not give up so easily. They quickly cashed in on the high level of poverty among Africans, particularly Nigerians to begin to exploit children by engaging them in chores and works meant for the adults.
The practice became so rampant that it began to assume the dimension of slavery. It may not be an outright sale of human beings for cheap labour but it has the entire semblance of that. It could be said to be slavery in disguise.
And to address the evolving ugly trend, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2002, declared June 12 as the WDACL. It was to focus attention on the global extent of child labour, the action and efforts needed to eliminate it, and ever since then, it has been a yearly event across the world.
Child labour deprives children of education and opportunity and stacks the odds against them securing a decent income and stable employment as adults. The celebration is intended to serve as a catalyst for the growing worldwide movement against child labour.
So, when the Federal Government, through the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, Daju Kachollom, dropped the bombshell that an estimated 43 percent of Nigerian children between the ages of five and 11 actively participate in economic activities, including the worst kinds of child labour, it immediately called to mind the ugly days of slavery.
Describing child labour as a serious issue that impacts millions of young people globally, Kachollom equally noted that it violates the fundamental rights to education, health, mental and moral growth of children, as well as a childhood free from all sorts of exploitations.
The 2023 celebration, themed: “Social Justice for All. End Child Labour,” was intended to reawaken consciousness of the problem and to re-energise international movement for social justice and the abolition of child labour.
She reiterated the government’s commitment to eliminating the dangers of child labour, noting that 39 percent of the children engaged in child labour work in dangerous industries like mining, granite quarrying and building construction, as well as engage in commercial sexual exploitation, armed conflict and occasionally, becoming victims of trafficking.
Analysts are of the view that there is an urgent need to review the national policy on child labour and the national action plan on the elimination of child labour.
This, they argued, would mainstream child labour into the Labour Standards Bill, including the adoption of 15 years as the minimum age for employment of children among others.
Checks by the DAILY POST revealed a growing cartel and network of men and women across the West African coast, which employs the services of under-aged children and ferry them across to Nigeria for various cheap labour.
Most of them work as nannies, housemaids, washer men/women, hawkers, security guards, as well as labourers in building sites across Lagos and other states of the federation.
Investigations have also shown that the bulk of these innocent children are from Togo, Benin Republic, Sierra-Leone and sometimes, Ghana.
Most often, they are willingly contracted to merchants or slave masters by their parents, who in turn, receive peanuts from the masters at the end of every month.
A large number of these under-aged children are found mostly in building sites and elites’ homes as domestic servants across most states in Nigeria, including Lagos.
A casual visit to some of the emerging towns in Lagos such as Lekki and Ajah among other fast growing urban and sub-urban centres in Lagos brings to fore the reality and gravity of the problem at hand.
They mix cement and gravel and serve the mason using head pans. They also carry blocks, which they serve the bricklayers on their heads. They don’t have any permanent address. Wherever they are building a new structure automatically becomes their new abode.
They look haggard, unkempt, malnourished and lethargic whenever one comes across them. Their condition is pitiable but they are helpless. They have been given away by their parents or wards in exchange for a peanut.
Expectedly, child development experts are in total agreement with the Permanent Secretary, Kachollom, who listed poverty, cultural and religious factors, poor educational system, inadequate social protection systems and wrong perception of the negative effects of child labour as some of the hindrances to ending child labor in Nigeria
Apart from reiterating the government’s commitment to creating initiatives that would end child labour, she equally listed other plans by the government to include engaging in advocacy interventions as a way of encouraging government at all levels and policymakers to enact and enforce laws that protect children from exploitation and ensure access to quality education.
She also noted that efforts were being made to help community-based groups carry out programmes aimed at preventing child labour, rehabilitating victims of child labour, and empowering households that are at risk of it.
A building contractor, Romanus Okoye, noted that most kids who work at building construction sites across Lagos were mostly from neighbouring Togo and Benin Republic.
“Most times, they come through a network. In fact, I refer to it as an extension of the ancient slave trade.
“Simply put, it is modern slavery. From my investigation, their fathers are often the ones who give them out to be used as child labourers. The parents are paid a token from whatever the middleman gets from whomever that is using the child.
“They are mostly used for manual labour, domestic chores or even street hawking. I know of a few networks in some parts of Lagos State. I think it has really gone all over. It is a trade that is done underground; just like the slave trade.”
However, there are others who use a different lens to view what is happening.
To this group of people, the kids are simply learning the art of craftsmanship.
For them, they are only being exposed early in life to learning the skills of building; they see nothing wrong in that.
But, there are others who refuse to follow the argument that they are just learning a craft at an early age. Those on this divide insisted that the children were only being used as cheap labourers.
One of the proponents of this group, a social critic, Godwin Onatade, argued that if they wanted to learn any craft, they should first, get formal education, which would help them to make good choices of what they want to be in life.
“The surprising thing is that these little kids ought to be somewhere in school to get formal education first and know if their calling is in the craft work or white collar job.
“A child should be given a free hand to decide what profession to take on in life. Their age ranges from five, six and up to 13. The main person that brought them to the site will release money to the eldest among them to provide meals to the others.
“Most times, they just cook beans and eat it with garri at the site. They also live on the site, sometimes in the open. They live in the houses still under construction starting from the period of foundation to the roofing level,” he stated.
Commenting on those engaged as domestic servants/workers at a very tender age, he said: “What would you say about a little boy or girl of less than 10 years who is employed to carry out such tedious domestic works as washing clothes, cleaning and mopping the house, washing plates, and washing cars among other domestic chores meant for grown up?
“Would you also say that such kids are learning a craft? No, it is pure child abuse and slavery. And they do it because they pay next to nothing to these kids unlike when a mature person is engaged to carry out such duties.
“So, it is just an unfortunate situation that calls for every well-meaning individual to speak out against.”
Osita Osemene is the Coordinator of the Patriotic Citizens Initiative, an organisation that is at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking, sexual exploitation and child slavery, among other forms of inhuman treatments against humanity.
Lending his voice to the discourse, he described child labour as a wicked and terrible act.
“It is simply man’s inhumanity to man. You can imagine recruiting children at that age usually from the age of six to 10 years, bringing them for cheap labour to work as bricklayers and all sorts of work.
“It is true that many are from Togo and Benin Republic, but there are quite a large number of them who are Nigerians,” he said.
What is the way out of the ugly development?
Osemene volunteered: “Already we have been trying in our own small way by collaborating with an agency like the National Agency for the Prohibition and Trafficking in Human Persons (NAPTIP) to bring this kind of ugly trend to a stop.
“We have a network for the eradication of child abuse and labour. My organisation is collaborating with them. It is even being supervised by the NAPTIP.”
Osemene noted that his organisation and NAPTIP alone would be unable to do the work, and called on all hands to be on deck.
“We are working but the issue is that the work is not enough. The incident is so rampant that it is happening in different areas at the same or different times and we cannot be everywhere. But, the ones we can see, we will talk because people must be aware,” he said.
He also advised parents to always speak out when they see such things in their environment, even as he called on the concerned authorities to educate parents on what constitutes child labour.
“Another thing is that parents are making things more difficult. They see these things as a means of livelihood.
“We need to educate our parents very well to see the evil in this business. When they know, they can complain when they see these things around their environment.
“We can stem the tide through awareness creation. And the people who are into the business, when caught, should be seriously dealt with to serve as a deterrent to others,” he advised.