All photos by Elizabeth Whitman. Laila lives in a sparsely furnished home in the Jordan Valley. Her eldest son, 12-year-old Abdullah, works full-time at a nearby body shop, while her four other children stay at home. None are in school.
About three months ago, a car mechanic in a dusty town in the Jordan Valley decided to do a neighboring Syrian family a favor. From 8 am until 8 pm, six days a week, their eldest son, 12-year-old Abdullah, could toil in his shop, in heat that locals describe as "fire." The boy would earn four Jordanian dinars ($5.64) a day.
"It's illegal for us to employ children," the man, who did not want his name used, said matter-of-factly as Abdullah and his parents sat nearby, tentative, as if beholden to him. "But Abu Abdullah [Abdullah's father] has to change his blood every 15 days"—he has thalassemia, a blood disorder—“they have small kids, and his mother has to stay home with them. So who's going to work?"
The mechanic was adamant that Abdullah (whose name was changed to protect his identity) did only light work. "If I need a bottle of water, I tell him to get it. We can't make them do more than that." But Abdullah's green plaid shirt and faded jeans, dark with grease stains, belied the mechanic's claims.
Nothing was unusual about the circumstances the shopkeeper described. Impoverished Syrian family fleeing war? Check. Male head of household unable to work? Check. Local employer who saw an opportunity for himself to pay a low wage of a third of a Jordanian dinar ($.47) per hour? Check.
The Jordanian government estimates that of the 600,000 Syrians officially taking refuge in the country, 10 percent are laboring children. Aid workers, government officials, and Syrians interviewed portrayed child labor as a desperate coping mechanism for refugee families dependent on an overwhelmed humanitarian aid system. Ultimately, such an overburdened system and economic and social conditions create a perfect storm in which child laboring seems all but inevitable.
Humanitarian organizations and the government are trying to reduce child labor through a variety of approaches, but aid workers say any sustainable solution would have to be multifaceted and comprehensive, and none so far are imminent.
Laila, Abdullah's mother, blanched when Abdullah proudly gestured no when I asked him if he missed being in school or wanted to return. Another employee chuckled. "He wants to go to school. He's just afraid that if he says so in front of his boss, he'll lose his job."
"I'm comfortable," Abdullah countered stubbornly. "Here is better." Laila looked confused, her eyebrows moved closer together, and the lines around her eyes became more prominent. Just that morning, she had emphatically stated that her children wanted to be in school. After Abdullah, she had two daughters and then two more sons. The eldest three hadn't attended school since 2011, when Abdullah would was nine, and they still lived in Idlib, Syria. A neighbor had told her—falsely—that government schools do not accept Syrian children, and Laila did not investigate further.
When it comes to child labor, children missing schoolwork concerns aid workers more than anything else. "Children are dropping out of school and working due to economic necessity—not from lack of interest," said Salam Kanaan, Jordan country director for CARE International, a humanitarian organization.
"The major [danger] is the loss of education," MahaHomsi, chief of child protection at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Jordan told me. "You will have a community of uneducated kids, and in the 21st century; they've lost it all if they've lost their education." The longer children are out of school, Homsi added, the less their desire to return.
Although aid groups, from international organizations to local charities, strive to provide cash, coupons, and essential materials to refugees, they cannot provide enough for everyone. "They tell us there's aid for rent for the house," Laila said, but "we see nothing." It is illegal for adult Syrians to work in Jordan without a costly and elusive work permit, though many do so anyway, especially in low-skill sectors, earning about a third of what Jordanians make, according to one source, or sometimes next to nothing at all if employers refuse to pay. In 2011, the average wage for low-skilled laborer in Jordan was 10 JD ($14) per day. When Laila worked on a local farm, she earned 5 JD ($7.06) per day.
When adults don't or can't work, the burden of earning falls on children. A recent study by the International Labor Organization on child labor in the informal sector in three Jordanian governorates found children's income "to be a significant source of income for many households."
"It seems that business owners prefer children," Kanaan added, as they are less likely to negotiate for better wages, hours, and working conditions. But children also face greater risk of danger, exploitation, or abuse. "We find them in the streets, selling food made by their family," said Kanaan. "They roam the streets day and night, trying to sell these products."
Akram, left, and Qais, are 13 years old. They attend school but work during vacations, for 3 JD ($4.23) per day, and their earnings go to rent and other necessities.
"Child labor is part of a bigger, more complex issue, which is of course being a refugee," noted Kanaan. As long as refugee families are in desperate circumstances, child labor is likely to be a problem.
Laila used to earn a couple of dollars more than her son, picking tomatoes and eggplants on a nearby farm. She quit two weeks ago, worn out by the conditions and her own high blood pressure and anxiety, leaving Abdullah the sole breadwinner of 80 JD ($112.87) per month (the shopkeeper said he paid Abdullah a wage amounting to 96 JD [$126.98] per month). Monthly rent was 70 JD ($98.76). From Laila'sperspective, the family had exhausted all other options for income, and if her two daughters could work, they would too.
Last fall, UNICEF and partner organizations experimented with giving families 30 JD ($42.33) per month per child in exchange for taking children out of work and keeping them in school. "The results were amazing," Homsi said, citing one dropout. UNICEF will continue to implement that program, butshe admitted that the system is imperfect and won't last forever.
"How much can you continue to give cash assistance to the family?" she asked, calling for livelihood programs that would be more sustainable, or for the government to give work opportunities to Syrians.
"When we try to design projects to tackle [child labor], one of the key solutions is to provide alternatives for families," namely, additional income, MahaKattaa, Syrian refugee response coordinator for the International Labor Organization, said. But she noted that an amount of 30 JD per month was "not enough" in a conditional cash assistance program. "If these alternatives do not cover basic needs, [children] will go back to the labor market," she warned.
The Ministry of Labor approaches child labor by trying to crack down on employers. Punishing Syrians—children or adults—working illegally is not viable, said Ayman Khawaldeh, chief of the inspection department at the ministry. "We respect the uniqueness of the situation that the Syrian people are going through," he told me. "We don'tdeport [Syrian] workers or kids or their families who break the law." Instead, they fine or close establishments with labor violations. But those measures don't concentrate solely on child labor, nor do they diminish a Syrian family's need for income or employer's desire for cheap, obedient labor.
For the two weeks between the end of school and the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, Akram, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, worked for the owner of a coffee cart in the shade of a large birch tree in downtown Amman. He delivered trays of coffee and tea to shops in the area and also washed glasses. "Sometimes I make coffee or tea," he added. He lived with his parents and 11 brothers and sisters on one of the hills east of downtown. He was enrolled in school and will enter seventh grade in the fall, just like another 13-year-old Jordanian boy, Qais, who works at the same stand and also attends school.
Both of their fathers are friends with Ahmad, the coffee cart's owner, and Ahmad said that the fathers asked him to employ their sons to keep them out of trouble. "We don't have places here for entertainment, or summer educational programs," he said, insisting, "they're not under pressure to work and bring in money." He said the boys work ten hours (12, the boys said) and earn 5 JD ($7.06) (only 3 JD [$4.23], according to Qais and Akram) per day, with a day off on Friday.
Contrary to what Akram said, the boys weren't working solely for personal improvement. At the end of every day, both drop their earnings into a household jar. And at the end of every month, money is taken out of that jar, to be used for the same purposes as Abdullah's earnings: rent, water, electricity, and food.
Follow Elizabeth Whitman on Twitter.