Fellowship | Human Rights | In-depth | Children

Extreme poverty forces children to be bread-winners

By - 10.12.2018

Vicious cycle of childhood poverty in Kosovo robs children of their rights.

On June 30 this year, Seldin Alija was hard at work at his job for SatStyro, a styrofoam production company in Prizren. Then tragedy struck.

At 11:40 a.m., as the 17-year-old hurried to finish pulling styrofoam pieces from bags and transferring them into a recycling machine, one of the bags became stuck in the machine, entangling Seldin and pulling him in.

By the time other workers saw what was happening and were able to stop the machine, it was too late. Seldin had been pulled in, his body ground with the styrofoam.

Just three weeks earlier, his family — father, mother and his 18- and 12-year-old sisters — had gathered to celebrate the teenager’s birthday. Now, they gathered to mourn his death.

According to Seldin’s family, this had been his first formal job, but he had earlier been involved in forestry and work around the family’s home in the village of Lubizhdë.

Seldin’s employment was the result of family need. His father, Sedat, who has completed minimal education, works as a security guard at a small village factory where, by oral agreement, he makes only 150 euros per month.

He lost his life without even having received his first salary, which would have been 200 euros a month.

 

Worrying about the financial security of his five-member family, Sedat reached out to the owner of SatStyro, Adil Bajrami, and asked him to hire his son, as the family’s typical expenses had increased over the previous two years since Seldin had begun traveling regularly to Prizren to attend the ‘Allaudin’ Madrasa.

Beyond travel expenses, the tuition at the madrasa, according to its officials, cost 135 euros a year, which included the cost of textbooks and food.

Ramush Rushiti, Sedat’s brother-in-law and the only family member to have spoken publicly about the case, says the owner of the company had hesitated to employ the boy some seven to eight times, because he was young and inexperienced, but in the end had taken him on, affected by his father’s many pleas.

However, it would turn out to be a very short-lived employment for Seldin, who had only completed nine days of work before the accident took place. He lost his life without even having received his first salary, which, according to the agreement, would have been 200 euros a month.

Events developed so quickly that his schoolmates had not yet even realized he had started to work.

“It wasn’t like him to miss out on school,” says Enes Kryeziu, Seldin’s classmate. “Judging by his appearance, it looked as though he was struggling [financially], not that he ever complained.”

He claims Seldin was a good friend, quiet and engaged in lessons.

Seldin’s family is now left with just a handful of photos, in which he is seen dressed as an imam.

This was the first fatal accident at the Prizren company, where security cameras at the factory recorded Seldin’s tragic death.

“The video recording shows the victim did not act due to pressure from another employee or manager but simply had to continue pulling out [the styrofoam] from the sack and feed it into the machine with his hands, just as he had started,” says Rrahman Mazreku, a labor inspector in Prizren, who has cooperated with the Prishtina Labour Inspectorate to draft a report for the Alija family case. “The machine had two emergency stop buttons, but the victim did not think [to use them] — he was terrified and therefore did not stop the machine.”

According to the Labour Inspectorate report obtained by K2.0, not only did Seldin lack the necessary safety training for his job, but the recycling machine did not meet European standards. It had two emergency stop buttons, but no alarms to be triggered in the event of direct danger, and no automatic stop mechanism. Therefore, it was not safe for use.

“There are undeniable facts that the machine poses a serious threat to health and safety at work,” states the Inspectorate report, dated July 2, 2018.

“We are all guilty,” says Rushit, referring to Seldin's death. “But no one is more [responsible] than the harsh economic situation in Kosovo.”

The next day, July 3, the Inspectorate suspended the use of the machine. The company was required to hire trained workers in compliance with the Law on Labour and the Law on Safety and Health at Work. It was also required to assess the risks at the accident site, and to appoint a person responsible for health and safety at work. The company, according to the Inspectorate, has now undertaken all of the above measures.

“We are all guilty,” says Rushit, referring to the death of his nephew. “But no one is more [responsible] than the harsh economic situation in Kosovo.”

Based on the latest data in the Kosovo Agency of Statistics’ Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2013-14, 11 percent of Kosovo’s children aged 5-17 were engaged in child labor in 2014. Using the Agency’s population forecasts, that means almost 46,000 children are estimated to have engaged in child labor in 2014.

Lindita Boshtrakaj, head of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Kosovo, says that based on a decade of monitoring child labor cases, it is most commonly “the family’s poor financial situation,” that forces children into such work.

According to the ILO, engaging in many forms of child labor can harm a child’s well-being, development and future standard of living. Furthermore, it can damage, exploit and abuse children by violating their rights.

Boshtrakaj says that damaging forms of child labor include work in agriculture with hazardous pesticides, forestry work, construction work, street work such as selling small items or begging, child trafficking and exposure to pornography.

International standards, as well as Kosovo’s legal framework, allow older children to engage in certain types of work, with increased protections compared to workers aged 18 or over.

In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act, allows children aged 14 and 15 to do light work for up to 18 hours a week, but only three hours a day can be completed on school days. Minors aged 16 to 17 are allowed to work four hours a day on school days, and a total of 20 hours per week.

Meanwhile, Kosovo’s Law on Labour allows children aged 15 to 17 to engage in “easy” labor for up to 30 hours per week, and prohibits overtime or overnight shifts. Those under the age of 18 are not allowed to work in any job that may damage their health, safety, development or morale, and extra protections are provided such as extended breaks.

But despite the labor legislation in force, in recent years, dozens of people have died or have been injured in workplaces in Kosovo. And, as Seldin’s case shows, children are also affected by the harsh working conditions they are forced to endure because of poverty.

Juvenile dancers exploited and abused

Other cases of child labor in Kosovo include children younger than Seldin, and more controversial forms of work.

The minors Arta, Donika and Mimoza* — each aged 14 at the time of employment — were employed at the Xhaka bar in Shtime, which opened in November 2016 next to the town’s busy bus station.

The bar was located in the basement of the building, leading to suspicion about the activities taking place within the place that employed three young girls as waitresses.

According to a judgment issued by the Basic Court of Ferizaj, dated April 19, 2017, the girls were not only employed as waitresses. Sometimes, during evening hours, at least two of the girls worked as “dancers.”

Based on descriptions given to K2.0 by people working at the bar, two of the girls — Arta and Donika — performed lap dances as well as erotic table dances that involved body touching.

“More and more clients were coming from all over Kosovo,” says 23-year-old bar owner Rrahim Miftari.

The business was doing well until one night in January 2017 two plain-clothed police officers entered the bar, pretending to be regular clients.

Seeing the situation in the bar, the police officers arrested the owner and the three girls, taking them to the police station. The girls were later subjected to medical examinations.

Riza Murati, who heads a section within Kosovo Police’s Directorate for Investigation of Trafficking with Human Beings, says that those living in poverty are particularly susceptible to trafficking and they are often reluctant to report it.

The court originally sentenced Miftari and the other co-owner of the premises, 26-year-old Fitim Beqa, each to six months in prison under the Law on Labour’s Article 7, which prohibits employment of children under the age of 15, and Article 27, which prohibits night work for persons under the age of 18, in conjunction with the Criminal Code’s Article 221, which sanctions the violation of juvenile labor rights. But in a plea agreement, the sentences were converted to 1,800 euro fines.

Judge Hakile Ilazi, who gave the verdict on the case in April, says that since the defendants in the Xhaka bar had both pleaded guilty, and the family members had pledged to show more care for the girls, they were returned home and not sent to social care centers away from their families.

Miftari, who prior to opening the bar had worked as a construction worker, said he did not know the exact age of the girls or the legal limitations for employment of minors.

He also says that Donika and Arta were employed with the knowledge of their parents. “I would give half of the girls’ salaries to their parents because they were in need,” Miftari says. “I’ve said it elsewhere and I will repeat that their only job was to serve drinks, including spirits.”

Miftari claims that the girls had started dancing in spite of his advice not to do so. “They saw there was money in it,” he says. “They’d earn more than me, and yet only I bore the consequences.”

The family of one of the girls has refused to talk about the case, while the families of the other two girls could not be located due to a lack of accurate information.

Sociologist Albert Mecini from the University of Prishtina says that Kosovo has become a suitable ground for this type of modern slavery and exploitation that results from poverty.

“Having a poor economy and educational levels, and being in a prolonged transition phase, makes such phenomena emerge,” he says. “They are initially promised normal work like waitressing, but the truth is that they are manipulated because they are young. The injustice they face goes on, and this is [particularly] tragic because they are of a very young age.”

At the beginning of December 2018, a second trial linked to the Xhaka bar case was still underway. For his alleged role in inducing the girls to dance, Miftari has been charged with sexual abuse of persons under the age of 16, as has his brother Afrim, who has additionally been charged with human trafficking.

Riza Murati, who heads a section within Kosovo Police’s Directorate for Investigation of Trafficking with Human Beings, says that those living in poverty are particularly susceptible to trafficking and they are often reluctant to report it.

“The [grim] financial situation is forcing women and girls to agree to exploitation,” he says. “Trafficking only deepens poverty, because the victims do not get the profit for themselves.”

Several months after that particular case, in September 2017, the same Ferizaj court sentenced 35-year-old Azmen Emini to nine months in prison for violating rights in labor relations, after he employed 13-year-old Lindita* in his Italia bar in the village of Lloshkobare as a waitress, and at night, as a dancer.

The verdict issued by Judge Ilir Bytyqi says that such child employment could result in “stagnation in psychosocial and educational wellbeing.”

The Juvenile Department within the Basic Prosecution of Ferizaj also indicted two other men in connection with the Italia bar case on charges of sexual abuse of persons under the age of 16. However on November 20, 2018, the judge in the Basic Court of Ferizaj dismissed the charges.

The Xhaka bar in Shtime is now closed, but the Italia bar in Lloshkobare remains open, although under new ownership.

Mecini says that one of the contributing factors affecting the circumstances of many young women is the denial of property inheritance rights.

There are currently four cases in the Basic Court of Ferizaj that address the trafficking of minors (under the Criminal Code’s Article 171), procuring the sexual services of a trafficking victim (Article 231), and violation of rights in labor relations (Article 221).

According to data that the Serious Crimes Department of the Kosovo Judicial Council released to K2.0, during 2018 there have been 91 cases of sexual abuse of persons under the age of 16 before the courts, and eight cases of violation of rights in labor relations. Meanwhile, data from the U.S. State Department for 2017 shows that Kosovo’s courts convicted 29 human traffickers last year.

Based on the latest poverty data published by the Kosovo Agency of Statistics and the World Bank in 2017, more women live in poverty than men, poverty rates are higher in rural areas compared to urban ones, and more children live in poverty than those of working age or older people.

Mecini says that one of the contributing factors affecting the circumstances of many young women is the denial of property inheritance rights. This is believed to be the main reason that only 16 percent of real estate owners in Kosovo are women according to a report published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in 2016.

“They are forced to build their own economy from scratch,” Mecini says.

Arta, Donika, Mimoza and Lindita began doing so in dodgy bars until they were discovered by police officers or, in Lindita’s case, from a photo that reached the prosecutor.

Mecini says their reintegration into society is difficult due to a tendency in Kosovo to place the burden on the victims. “They are stigmatized as a result of the ​​work they were doing, with no consideration of the living conditions and the circumstances that led them there,” he says.

Many other girls may be doing the same kind of work, still undiscovered, as the identification of forced labor cases among children is lagging.

Based on the results of the Child Protection Index 2018 issued by the Coalition of NGOs for Child Protection, the state only carried out 16 percent of potential actions that the organization considers would constitute effective measures in combating negative forms of child labor and street work.

Mecini says that institutional action is lacking and fails to resolve problems like those involving the juvenile girls in Shtime and Ferizaj.

“Cases like these either drag on or are overlooked by institutions, while the problem persists,” he says.

* Editor’s note: Arta, Donika, Mimoza and Lindita’s real names have been changed.

From one generation to the next

In many cases, poverty is inherited from one generation to the next.

On a warm June day, 42-year-old Blerim Malaj carries out maintenance work on the Strellc village cemetery in the municipality of Deçan, assisted by his 11-year-old son.

Since December 2016, Blerim has been paid 100 euros a month by the Haki Povataj Association, founded by village compatriots living and working in Switzerland. The association purports to raise funds and provide financial assistance to people in need.

His salary is lower than the 120 euros that his family of seven receives through Kosovo’s social assistance scheme. Given his family’s circumstances, he claims he does “any sort of work” they assign to him in the village, such as cleaning the house yards.

Blerim says that ever since he was nine, he has been working various jobs in forestry, agriculture, and building security to help himself and his family afford to live.

“I’ve never been able to choose the work I do [due to poverty],” he says. “I’ve never had a stable job.”

Now, he fears that a similar fate will plague his son.

The young boy likes math and football, but school cannot be his primary focus.

Blerim Malaj takes his 11-year-old son with him to assist with his work. He worries that the poverty he experienced while growing up is being inherited by his son. Photo: Diellza Balaj / K2.0.

Sociologist Mecini says poor working children such as Blerim’s son are denied full access to education and to social life. “They therefore get marginalized and remain exploited in illegal jobs, which poverty has pushed them to take on,” he says.

Blerim asserts that while he was poor as a child, his children are growing up in even greater poverty than that which he experienced when younger.

“I had poor living conditions as a child, and now my luck follows my son,” Blerim says. “He goes to anyone who calls for him to clean their houses. He also goes to the forest for wood.”

The tendency for poverty to be inherited from one generation to the next, as in the case of Blerim and his family, is also shown by academic studies. This phenomenon is observed in wealthy states, such as in the United States — which was central to chronic poverty debates at the United Nations this year — but it is more prevalent in poor and developing countries such as Kosovo.

Worldwide, around 1.3 billion people are estimated to be living in poverty, with no less than half of those people being children, according to the United Nations Development Program’s 2018 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Published in September, the index measures poverty based on indicators of health, education and living conditions.

Another person living in chronic poverty is 49-year-old Muharrem Alimehaj from the village of Lybeniq, near Peja.

“My brother and I alone looked after our mother and family from the age of 14,” he says, explaining that his father passed away when he was a teenager. “[We worked] in forests and fields, we ploughed land with horses… we did so many different jobs in life just to ensure the family’s survival.”

In addition to his family’s poverty in his youth, Muharrem’s life trajectory was later affected by political circumstances and the war in Kosovo.

On April 1, 1999 Serbian forces committed a massacre in Muharrem’s village, killing 49 people. Among the victims were his brother, sister-in-law, nephew and mother.

In addition to the huge personal loss, Muharrem and his wife Xufa, have had to take care of his three surviving nephews as well as their own three children who were born later on. Fourty-year-old Xufa has never been able to seek employment because she has had to take care of the family.

As their house was destroyed during the war, they were forced to live in another village for two years until the Swiss Red Cross rebuilt their home, which they returned to in 2001.

The only source of family income during the immediate postwar years was Muharrem’s salary, which he earned as a construction worker without a regular contract.

“My son sees me getting tired and understands our living conditions, so he is forced to come with me. He told me, ‘I’ll come help a little.’"

Muharrem Alimehaj

But on Friday, November 20, 2002, Muharrem fell from the third floor of a house that he was building in Peja. The medical report issued by Dr. Cenë Bytyqi — who at the time was the director of the orthopedic clinic at the University Clinical Center of Kosovo (QKUK) — said Muharrem had reportedly broken the vertebrae in his neck, injured his spine and sustained sprains throughout his body. The injuries kept him in hospital for two months.

Dr. Bytyqi’s report says that Muharrem’s broken vertebrae were immobilized with a plaster cast and that he was constantly given pills for pain relief.

Once released from the hospital, despite the advice of the orthopedist that he should remain in bed and not work on construction, Muharrem was forced to return to work after only a further month of rest.

“I went back, as the whole family depends on me,” he says.

The family had been receiving social assistance from the state for many years, and with Muharrem’s occasional income they managed to survive until 2011.

That year, their youngest child turned five and the assistance, which amounted to 65 euros a month, was terminated by municipal authorities.

Muharrem’s earnings alone were no longer sufficient, so his eldest son began working with his father on small jobs such as cutting wood; now 16, he has also begun joining his father on construction jobs.

“He sees me getting tired and understands our living conditions, so he is forced to come with me. He told me, ‘I’ll come help a little.’ The boss admitted him as he knew about my financial situation. ‘Let him come and be your right arm,’ he told me,” Muharrem says. “During winter, when I cannot work in construction, I need to make do by borrowing from people until the working season starts and I can pay them back.”

Muharrem’s teenage son is currently a student in his second year at the Ali Hadri Medical School in Peja. He says he chose medicine as a future profession in the hope of finding work abroad.

“Maybe when I go abroad, my family and I will be better off,” he says.

Yet, there is a risk that his plans might be influenced by his present.

Besnik Ibishi, a general practitioner at the Family Medicine Center in Kamenica, says that because they are subjected to lifting heavy weights, and exposure to extreme temperatures, noises and dust, children working in construction are at risk of developing problems with back pain, spine deformity, broken limbs and other injuries. According to Ibishi, such injuries hinder their ability to work and aggravate their socio-economic situation.

In addition, psychologist Fitim Uka, head of the Center for Psychosocial and Medical Research in Prishtina, says childhood work also hinders important activities such as play, psycho-social engagement and rest.

“Working children have, in addition to physical fatigue, a higher predisposition to experience depression, helplessness, shame, guilt, lack of confidence and low self esteem,” Uka says.

State support comes as little more than promises

In urban centers, poverty is often manifested by children begging in the streets.

Among them are 25-year-old Nakie Hajrizi’s three children, who she has taught how to beg herself.

Nakia lights some firewood to cook food for the family in their shack in Fushë Kosovë’s Neighborhood 29, as she has no electrical stove. Her two boys, aged 5 and 18 months, sit near the wood stove, while her 2-month-old baby girl sleeps.

She bought the food, some sliced sausage, using the money she collected while begging earlier in the day. “We are hardly [surviving] from one day to the next,” she says.

The shack only has one room, which all five family members sleep in together. “We spend the day here, we store all our clothes here, our food… I wash my kids here,” says Nakia, who married five years ago.

Nakia says she takes the children with her begging, because she hopes that people will be more merciful when they see her out with small children.

Her 28-year-old husband, Nehat, brings home money he makes from selling what he collects from the garbage, but the small amount is not enough, so Nakia took the decision to go out every Friday by the Mosque in Fushë Kosovë to extend her arm in front of the people coming out of it.

Later, Nakia began to go out daily to Prishtina, initially with their eldest son, and then with their second child. Now, the baby joins them, too.

Nakia says she takes the children with her for two reasons: because her husband goes to collect the garbage so she cannot leave them alone in the shack, and because she hopes that people will be more merciful when they see her out with small children.

“But,” she says, “there are now more people begging.”

According to statistics provided to K2.0 by Kosovo Police, in 2017 the force identified 351 beggars. Among them there were women and elderly people, but mostly children, predominantly those from minority communities such as Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians.

The number, however, may well be greater, according to field research conducted by the Swiss child protection organization Terre Des Hommes.

In just four working days in June 2018, in Kosovo’s two largest municipalities, Prishtina and Prizren, the organization recorded 153 cases of children working in the streets, either begging or selling small items.

Vebi Mujku, who for many years has served as head of Prishtina’s Center for Social Work, a public institution providing social and family services, says the increased number of beggars extends beyond the circumstance of poverty.

“There have been times when beggars have been taken to the police station and they’ve found that each had 50-100 euros in their pockets,” Mujku says. “By going out daily they gather more money a month than ministers make in wages perhaps. So they have become dependent on the phenomenon of earning without working.”

Vebi Mujku from the Prishtina Center for Social Work is working together with colleagues to raise awareness about the risks to children of street begging. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0 archives.

According to Mujku, the center has reported a number of beggars to their respective municipalities. His team, which includes 12 social workers, has held training sessions for families, speaking about the risks facing their begging children, such as dependency, the emotional impact, the practice of earning without working, being deprived of education, exploitation by criminal groups, malnourishment, and physical or psychological violence.

Donjeta Kelmendi, director of the Coalition of NGOs for Child Protection, says Kosovo’s capacity to provide social services to children is low and that the Center for Social Work’s interest in the matter has waned.

In a document published in November 2018, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare states that social work centers provide more demand-based rather than needs-based services. According to the document, many of the social services for poor and vulnerable children are provided by four licensed NGOs. However, it continues, a number of municipalities have neither services nor funds allocated to NGOs.

“The nature of social and family services delivery in Kosovo is reactive, not well integrated with other sectors such as the police, judiciary, etc., and preventive services, early support and accompanying services are lacking,” the document states.

In the absence of service capacity and interest from state authorities, international bodies and NGOs are attempting to fill in the vacuum.

Terre Des Hommes is planning to provide a drop-in-center to provide support for children who are forced to work on the streets, and the organization is currently appointing the team to staff it.

Albulena Shabani, a former child protection officer at Terre Des Hommes, says the idea is for the drop-in-center to help create a database registering children engaged in negative forms of child labor, and then to look into providing them with daily services, which could include providing food, helping with tasks and socializing the children.

“Special attention must be paid to the families through professional trainings and income generating activities,” Shabani says. “Children often end up exploited [when doing negative forms of child labor] as they cannot decide for themselves.”

However, as Kelmendi from the Coalition of NGOs for Child Protection says, a full and functional chain of actors should be established for a successful service.

“There must be programs to rehabilitate children and to get them off the streets, in order to return them to a normal life, their families, schools and society,” she says.

Donjeta Kelmendi from the Coalition of NGOs for Child Protection says she believes in taking long-term measures for supporting children coming out of negative forms of child labor. Photo: Fjolla Hajrizaj / K2.0.

There are few indications, however, that the situation will change in the near future. Critics say that the 4.72 million euros foreseen for social and family services in 2019 is inadequate compared to the scale of the issue, and it is even slightly less than the 4.73 million euros allocated this year.

The Kosovo government’s child protection policy in also deficient in terms of social assistance, which was recently brought to public attention by politicians.

Currently, only foster families or families of children with permanent disabilities receive social assistance, as well as families living in poverty with no parent in work and no land or other valuable property and where at least one child is under the age of five.

On June 27 this year, MP Donika Kadaj from the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) — the current prime minister’s party — proposed a resolution in the Kosovo Assembly that called on the government to give all families with children an additional 10 euros per child per month.

According to Kadaj, this addition would cost the equivalent to 3 percent of the country’s annual budget, while increasing equality and the conditions of the children. If implemented, this would be Kosovo’s largest child protection program in decades, but the ball is now in the government’s court.

Until the government decides to act with specific policies, children and their families continue to struggle to make ends meet, and turn to whatever means they can find to earn enough money to survive. K 

Edited by Artan Mustafa.
Additional editing: Besa Luci, Jack Butcher.
Language editing: Lauren Peace.

Feature image: Diellza Balaj.

This article was written as part of K2.0’s Human Rights Journalism Fellowship, 2018.

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