The new face of child laborers in Iran is both surprising and painful. Widespread poverty and successive and deepening economic crises have forced many middle-class kids to become child laborers.
Even in Tehran, both the capital and the financial center of Iran, the number of child laborers has been increasing month by month. Children wearing a tie and holding a tablet work in shops instead of going to school or having fun next to their parents and siblings.
If your picture of a child laborer is a street vendor in threadbare clothing, then you are not familiar with a new social crisis that has descended on Iranians. These days, you see well-groomed children who, next to their parents, give service to the customers, middle-class children who work in stores and shopping centers because the parents can no longer provide a living for the family.
Young children who might not be even able to reach the shelf where the item you want is placed might look charming to some. But make no mistake about it, these are child laborers even though they are not included in the statistics about child labor. These new faces are testimonies to the spread of poverty, at least in Tehran.
Statistics clearly show that inflation, poverty and unemployment has led to the increase in the number of child laborers, and middle-class children are now quickly falling into the abyss of poverty.
The Small, Well-Groomed Workers
A little girl of about four years old is walking among cabinets in a shop that sells coffee, holding a small tablet and wearing a pink dress. The customers are amused when they see this little girl and the shadow of a smile forms on their faces. A woman asks the saleswoman the price of a pack of coffee and is utterly surprised when the little girl answers her loudly and professionally. It is obvious that the mother has brought her daughter to the shop as her assistant.
In shopping malls, you repeatedly notice girls or boys younger than 10 who are working next to their parents. In a dairy shop, a nine-year-old wearing black plastic boots has pulled up his sleeves and is busy cleaning his father’s big store. He then goes to the ice cream dispenser machine and gives the customer two ice cream cones. His face shows no sign of childhood happiness.
These children do not look unhappy. They have consented to come to work and their parents, afraid of an uncertain future, are trying to teach them how to run the business. But the parents, the children and society as a whole will pay a heavy price if children are forced out of their childhood cocoon before they can fly.
Children who should have been growing up naturally are now working and doing business. Their parents view sending them to college as a waste of money and time in today’s Iranian society and have concluded that every member of the family must work so that they can make a living, exactly like long ago when children were part of the workforce in agriculture and animal husbandry.
However, the body language and tone of voice of child laborers in no way resemble those of the children of their age.
In a June 2022 report on the increase in the number of child laborers and street children, the official IRNA news agency wrote, “According to some statistics and field reports, 15 to 20
percent of child laborers have no guardian or home. One of the biggest threats to these children, especially girls, is rape and prostitution. According to some statistics and reports, the age of prostitution has been reduced to 16.”
There can be no doubt that long working hours, the volume of work and moving heavy objects will have painful physical and psychological consequences for them in the near future. Other unfortunate consequences include temporary or permanent dropping out of school.
For many families, this way of life has become a way of showing off and competing with others. Sometimes these children spend the money they make on toys and outfits that they have no time to use. Some parents are persuaded to send their children to the streets on various occasions like Nowruz, the Persian new year’s holiday period, to sell things like flowers and goldfish so they can make money and buy things for themselves.
Article 79 of the Iranian Labor Code prohibits the employment of children under 15 years of age.
Recently, the State Welfare Organization of Iran reported that most of the 14,600 identified child laborers and street children live in the provinces of Isfahan, Bushehr, Tehran, Razavi Khorasan,
Sistan and Baluchistan, Khuzestan, Semnan, Fars, Kurdistan, Mazandaran, Hormozgan and Yazd.
In a 2008 report, the International Trade Union Confederation identified major forms of child labor as follows:
“Domestic work: Very common and sometimes seen as acceptable, it occurs inside or outside the family home. When domestic work occurs outside the home, children – almost always girls – work very long hours, have no chance to go to school and are isolated from their families and friends.
Agricultural work: Many working children are found in agriculture. They often work on the family farm or with the whole family for an employer.
Work in industries: This work can be regular or casual, legal or illegal. It includes carpet weaving, gemstone polishing, making garments, chemicals, glassware, fireworks, matches or a range of other products. These tasks expose the children to hazardous chemicals that can lead to poisoning, respiratory and skin diseases, radiant heat, fires and explosions, eyesight and hearing damages, burns and even death.
Work in mines and quarries: Child labor is used in small-scale mines. They work long hours without adequate protection and training. Child miners suffer from physical strain, fatigue and
disorders of the muscular and skeletal systems.
Slavery and forced labor: It is most commonly found in rural areas. It is also frequently linked to the oppression of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. Children are often also drawn into armed conflict, forced to be soldiers or to work for armed forces.
Prostitution and child trafficking: It is one of the worst forms of child labor. The dangers faced by children are extreme and range from moral corruption to sexually transmitted diseases and death.
Work in the informal economy: This includes a whole range of activities such as shoe cleaning, begging, pulling rickshaws, selling newspapers or collecting rubbish. Some forms are very easily observed while others are hidden from public view. Activities often take place on the streets but also include domestic work.”
Following the Covid-19 pandemic and successive economic crises, Iran has become an open field for child labor, and the streets and workplaces in big cities such as Tehran clearly attest to the depth of this expanding tragedy.