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They Don’t Know What Childhood is. The Saga of Child Laborers in Iran

February 11, 2020
Ali Ranjipour
5 min read
Official figures say about half a million children are in employment in Iran — but the actual figure is thought to be much higher
Official figures say about half a million children are in employment in Iran — but the actual figure is thought to be much higher
In 2017, there was a significant jump in the number of children working on the streets
In 2017, there was a significant jump in the number of children working on the streets
A survey of 500 street children conducted by Iran’s Welfare Organization found that 63 percent worked as peddlers
A survey of 500 street children conducted by Iran’s Welfare Organization found that 63 percent worked as peddlers

According to the latest official statistics from Iran, there are close to half a million child laborers currently working in the country. This figure is shocking in itself, but taking into consideration the population of children between the ages of 10 and 17, this means that one out of every 20 school-age child in Iran is in employment. Among them are a significant amount of children from neighboring countries who are in the Islamic Republic illegally.

According to a study carried out by the ministry of labor's Strategic Information Statistics unit, out of 500,000 children, 410,000 are officially employed, and about 90,000 are unemployed but in search of work.

The study, published in June 2019, was based on data for Iran’s workforce for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017. Statistics show that in 2017, there was a significant jump of 10 percent in Iran’s child laborer population, which was most likely linked to the economic crisis in Iran that crisis that emerged late in the summer of 2015 and has gradually worsened since then.

However, the situation in 2015 is not comparable to the depth of the economic crisis of 2018 and 2019, when Iran experienced the most severe stagflation in the country's history, causing irreparable damage to all parts of Iranian society — especially vulnerable communities and in particular children.

In fact the half a million figure for child laborers is misleading and inaccurate. In particular, two important points must be considered when attempting to arrive at an accurate figure.

The first is that the statistics only cover the population of children aged between 10 and 17, while in many parts of Iran children under the age of 10 are also forced to work.

The second point is that not all of these children, who are considered active in official censuses, are not necessarily employed in the traditional sense of the word. Many of them work in temporary or seasonal jobs, or in the family businesses. In many parts of the world, including Iran, it is common for children to work in these sorts of jobs, and these situations do not fall under the definition of "child labor" according to international bodies that focus on the issue.

The International Labor Organization has several fundamental criteria for identifying child laborers between the ages of five and 17. One of them regards children under the age of 11 who are in work. The second pertains to children who engage in dangerous jobs, such as mining and construction. The third is about long working hours — for children, this is more than 14 hours a week. According to some estimates, almost half of all of the work children do in Iran should be regarded as "child labor," which is illegal under international standards recognized by many countries around the world. 

According to employment statistics released in 2017, about two-thirds of Iran’s child population work in occupations involving high risk. More than 52,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 work in the two industries identified as hazardous: the mining and construction sectors.


Children Deprived of Education

An estimate for the large population of Iranian children who live in fragile and dangerous conditions can be reached by matching the above numbers with the number of children who have left school. 

Census data from the Iranian Statistics Organization for the year 2016 shows that the number of illiterate people of school age — that is, between six and 19 years old — is over 430,000, the majority of whom are children who have not gone to or who have left school. Looking at the number of children who drop out of school temporarily or permanently, it can be estimated that the number of children who are deprived of going to school is around two million.

Some of these deprived children are forced to marry —  adding to the number of childhood or underage marriages —  while others go into the job market to provide for their families, adding to the number of child laborers. These are the two most prevalent and shocking examples of the ways in which children are exploited in Iran, and illustrate the harsh conditions so many of them live under, including being faced with threats to their human rights.


Street Children

A very large part of this large vulnerable population is comprised of street children — who are more in the public eye than other child laborers. They are exposed to all kinds of violence and social harm and they are at serious risk of being exploited in a variety of ways.

In 2019, the deputy director of Iran’s Welfare Organization provided information regarding the work and living conditions of street children based on a study looking at 500 young people in Tehran. Its findings included:

  • One-third of street children are girls and about two-thirds are boys.

  • More than two-thirds of these children work on the street on a full-time basis. Thirty-four percent of these children work on the streets between one and four hours a day; 52 percent between four and eight hours; and 13 percent of them spend more than eight hours on the streets each day.

  • About 73 percent of children on the streets have experienced violence, as well as non-physical abuse, including humiliation, ridicule, and discrimination.

  • Thirty-one percent of these children are from families whose head of household is unemployed; 50 percent of them live in the suburbs and slums. The parents of 24 percent of these children suffer from illnesses, some of which prevent them from being in the workforce.

  • About 63 percent of these children are peddlers and about seven percent are employed as footmen in bazaars. Six percent of them collect and search through waste and rubbish.

  • Twenty-three percent of street children receive support from charitable institutions. Out of this group, 24 percent have parents with chronic illnesses.

  • Sixty-seven percent of the parents of these children are illiterate. The lower their education level, the less likely they are able to find a decent job, and their incomes are likely to be low.

  • Thirty-six percent of Iran’s street children are Iranian citizens who are registered at reception centers to receive support services. Sixty-nine percent of them are foreign nationals who do not hold a residence card and are working illegally in Iran.



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