The story of Haydar Karar, 13, who has to work in a carpentry shop eight hours a day, seven days a week, since he was eight years old. For a weekly salary of 20 euros. Mohanad Jabbar, 14, works in a shop but dreams of becoming an engineer. The areas that were once under the Islamic State are those where child exploitation is most widespread. The failure of government policies.
Baghdad () – Wars, confessional violence, the Islamic State (IS, former ISIS) and widespread poverty fuel the practice of child labor in Iraq, a growing phenomenon that is progressing in parallel with school dropouts even though they have not reached the minimum degree of studies. One of many stories is that of Haydar Karar, who must work up to eight hours a day in a carpentry, ordering tools and dragging heavy wooden beams. It’s just one real-life example of a country struggling to recover, 20 years after the US invasion that deposed al-Rais Saddam Hussein and sparked a spiral of conflict and terror that culminated in the jihadist rise in 2014.
He is now 13 years old, but he has worked in his uncle’s carpentry shop in Baghdad since he was eight, and his childhood has suffered many of the problems his country suffers. “They expelled me from school for a fight,” he told AFP, “and they never wanted to bring me back.” That is why her family decided to get her a job “so that she could build a future for me” and “could get married.” Today he works from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, every day, with an hour break to eat.
Karar’s weekly salary is equivalent to about 20 euros (less than three per day) and barely covers his and his sister’s needs. They both live with another uncle.
Mohanad Jabbar, 14, earns about six euros a day in a small company in the capital that makes construction products. Like his older brother, he has worked since he was seven years old to help support his family. “I would like to study and be an engineer,” he confesses, “but my family needs me” to survive.
The children generally work as apprentice mechanics and garbage collectors, in cafeterias or hairdressers, clean car windows and sell tissues on the streets. “Child labor is constantly increasing,” admits Hassan Abdel Saheb, head of that department of the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, due to “wars, conflicts and displacements.” And according to UN data, despite the possible wealth derived from oil, almost a third of the 42 million inhabitants live in poverty.
The country is struggling to regain stability after wars, corruption, lack of infrastructure, and the dramatic rise of Isis between 2014 and 2017. Today, the Islamic State has been defeated on a military level, but it continues to be present on an ideological and with small cells or lone wolves active and ready to attack. Precisely in the areas that were under the control of the Islamic State – especially Mosul, in the north, which had become its capital and stronghold – is where the practice of child labor is most widespread.
As Abdel Saheb himself points out, child labor -theoretically prohibited by law in the country up to the age of 15- has increased “particularly in the provinces that were invaded by Isis”. Child exploitation is punishable by jail and fines, but “with so many households left without a head of family, mothers are forced to make their children work.”
A study by the Ministry of Labor confirms a growing trend in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh, and in Baghdad itself. To try to stop the phenomenon, the government has provided aid for the poorest families, with monthly subsidies of between 100 and 250 euros depending on the number of children.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) also carried out a study on 411 families and 265 children which revealed an “alarming spike” in child labor at the end of 2022, especially in the conflict-torn area of Mosul. In that region, close to 90% of the families had “one or more working children.” In addition, about 75% of them admitted to “carrying out informal or dangerous jobs” such as garbage collection or construction.