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Child labor a rising concern in crisis-hit Greece

By Matthaios Tsimitakis

Though no clear, official figures are available, child protection groups and the Greek Ombudsman estimate that up to 100,000 children have been forced into the illegal labor market since the start of the crisis. The figure does not include minors who are victims of trafficking, traffic light children or youngsters who are victims of criminal gangs or their own families, but, rather, social groups that have become marginalized by the crisis, such as families where the parents are unemployed, Roma, migrants etc.

There is no hard data regarding child labor in Greece as in most cases it concerns undocumented work, so estimates are based on information compiled from different sources. According to the Labor Inspectorate, just 562 minors were registered for legal work in 2012, while in its manpower study for the last quarter of 2012, the Hellenic Statistical Authority estimated child workers as numbering 6,238.

The European statistical authority Eurostat, meanwhile, reports that 11.4 percent of the student population dropped out of school in 2012, meaning that some 70,000 children left secondary school, raising serious concerns among child protection groups.

Furthermore, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that some 139,000 young people aged 15-24 were not in school or employed in 2009, suggesting that at least a percentage of them had been absorbed by the illegal labor market. That number climbed to 161,900 in 2010, according to the ILO. As far as teenagers aged 15-19 are concerned, the ILO recorded that there were 31,400 in employment in 2009 and 25,700 in 2010. The number of unemployed young people aged up to 19 was reported to be 14,200 in 2009 and 15,300 in 2010.

The Greek Ministry of Education could not provide official data regarding children who leave secondary education, though it does have data for the 2011-12 period concerning primary education, where the percentage of school leavers was estimated at 0.6 percent, or around 3,500 pupils. While the number of children dropping out of school gives only a general indication of the number of minors working illegally in Greece, there is even less clarity to be gained from a study of the number of children who work and go to night school or vocational training schools in their spare time. These numbers, in combination with data compiled by the Greek Ombudsman from educators and other professionals, suggest that there may be as many as 100,000 minors currently employed in Greece, often part-time and mostly uninsured and badly paid.

“It is estimated that around 70 percent of children that abandon their school studies do so in order to work. It would not be excessive to say that around 70,000 to 100,000 children are working in this country,” says Ilias Lyberis, the director of Unicef Hellas.

“My opinion is that the poverty that is hitting an increasing number of families with serious consequences on the children often leads many of them to seeking part-time or one-off work, often under unfavorable terms, such as low wages or substandard conditions, so that they can help supplement their family's income,” says Giorgos Moschos, the deputy Greek ombudsman in charge of children's rights.

According to a recent report by Unicef, the reasons that lead children into the illegal labor market are directly linked to the crisis, which in many cases has resulted in one or both parents being out of work and a serious drop in families' purchasing power.

“According to the UN's Convention on the Right of the Child, every kind of labor that puts a child's physical or intellectual development at risk is prohibited,” says Lyberis.

“We know that this is not a new problem, but one that has always been around, given that in 50 percent of cases, it is the families themselves that push their child into the labor market. The crisis, however, has given rise to new challenges that the state must address,” he adds.

The United Nations and Unicef suggest that Greece adopt a national action plan to deal with the negative impact of the crisis on children.

More specifically, Unicef has called for labor inspectors to receive specialized training to tackle issues such as trafficking and child labor, the introduction of a centralized body to address these issues and a redesign of policy regarding how benefits are paid to minors.

The organization also noted that Greece has one of the poorest records in the European Union in terms of policies for the protection of children. For example, in 2011, targeted policies such as tax breaks and benefits led to the child poverty level dropping from 33 percent to 12 percent in the United Kingdom and from 42 percent to 8 percent in Ireland. In Greece, however, the rate went from 40 percent to 20 percent in the same period.

“We know that hundreds, maybe thousands of children, especially Roma, are never enrolled in school and help their families by working or come to Greece from neighboring countries in order to work, especially in the street, begging, playing music or peddling wares,” Moschos notes.

The children of migrants, who often have no health coverage, are also at risk, according to Lyberis.

“Another category is children in rural areas, who are often exposed to agricultural chemicals and run a heightened risk of work-related accidents,” says Moschos, adding, however, that most children in the illegal labor market come from poor families living in cities.

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