While many of her peers were enjoying summer vacation, 13-year-old Afiye was picking eggplants under a scorching sun in the fields of southern Turkey’s Adana Province.
Afiye has been working in agriculture since she was 11 to augment her family’s income, and dropped out after completing elementary school. For a 10-hour workday, she is paid 30 lira ($16.50). Four of her six siblings also work in the fields.
While Turkey may rank as Europe’s fastest growing economy, expanding by 8.5-percent in 2011, many Turkish children, and their families, are watching the boom from the sidelines. At 23.5 percent, the country has one of the highest rates of child poverty among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Official data from 2007, the most recent year available, estimates that almost 1 million children between the ages of six and 17 years old work on a regular basis in Turkey. But the exact number is hard to come by. Turkey still lacks an effective monitoring system for child labor, and many of the employers are unregistered.
Seasonal workers, including Afiye and other members of her family, are constantly on the move in search of paid work. For most months out of the year, the family lives in a camp, sharing one tent made from plastic sheets. Camp hygiene is poor, and a cause of illness, especially among younger children. In the case of Afiye's family, only seven makeshift toilets, provided for by the company that pays for the workers, served the settlement’s roughly 100 inhabitants. Afiye’s family bathed in a small washing area that her father crafted from scratch.
After Afiye returns from the field, her working day is not yet over. She makes bread, cleans and takes care of her younger siblings.
While there are buses that pick up the children from the camp during the school year, many do not regularly attend school in order not to miss out on work. “I would love for all my children to get a decent education,” said Celal, Afiye’s 43-year-old father. “But we cannot afford it.”
More than 18 percent of Turkey’s population lived below the poverty line in 2009, according to UNICEF. (Official statistics for 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, give a rate half that level.) Official unemployment stands at 8.2 percent.
“Families often have to rely on children for an additional income,” said Dr. Ferdi Tanir, a lecturer in the public health department of Adana’s Çukurova University. “You cannot just make it stop. Different forms of child labor require different solutions.”
Tanir believes that since the 1990s, Turkey has made significant progress in combatting child labor. In 1999, 2.27 million children were estimated to be working, but by 2006, he noted, the number had fallen to 958,000.
In 2001, Turkey ratified an International Labor Organization convention covering the worst forms of child labor and pledged to eradicate child labor in areas that put a child’s health and safety at risk, including seasonal agricultural work, work in heavy industries and work on the streets.
Over the last six years, eradication efforts appear to have stalled. While the national government in Ankara has tried to address problems, solutions often appear more local than national.
Officials were not available for comment.
In 2011, the European Union Progress Report, an assessment of Turkey’s alignment with EU policies, noted that “no measurable progress has been made yet in the fight against child labor.”
The challenge is partly one of psychology. Children in Turkey are not generally recognized as having rights apart from their family. If a family requires more income, children are expected to contribute.
Few activists expect that situation to change soon. Poverty has turned the southern regional seat of Adana into “a child-labor paradise,” said Osman Kara, a representative of the local Human Rights Association. The city of 1.6 million has an unemployment rate of 19.1 percent, the highest in Turkey.
“[M]any Kurdish families that have been forced from their villages in the southeast have settled here, and most of them are poor,” Kara continued. “They have few choices if they want to make ends meet.”
In Adana’s impoverished, predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Yüregir, nine-year-old Kadir receives 60 lira ($33.34) a month for 10 hours of work a day, six days a week at an informal workshop that produces winter coats for a large Turkish clothing company. His 13-year-old brother is proud to make 100 lira ($55.56) now. During the school year, both brothers work after school, too. Nearly half of the 15 workers present were under the age of 18.
One Adana workshop owner estimates that there are 60 such workshops in his neighborhood alone. “Parents ask us to take in their children to keep them out of trouble,” the owner said. “Children also learn a profession here.”
Kadir and his brother, both of whom want to be master tailors when they grow up, say that they are proud to help out their family.
Their plans for once their shift ends, however, have another focus -- swimming. “Maybe”, Kadir added, beaming, “one day I will to be able to swim . . . every afternoon.”