Published: 12:31 April 28, 2016
Port-au-Prince: Seated on an earthen floor on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital city, seven-year-old Samuel Jean fashions a little boat from a piece of wrought iron.
This not child’s play, but work, as the little boy helps his parents craft trinkets to sell to tourists for a meagre sum.
Officially, Haiti’s labour laws forbid minors younger than 14 from working, but extreme poverty leaves no other option for many families on this divided Caribbean island, the poorest country in the Americas.
In the village of Noailles on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, a half-century old tradition exists of employing children to create ornaments from wrought iron.
“Many people have come here to see our work: Bill Clinton, foreign MPs, ambassadors,” shouts Walner Joseph, 46, over the clanging of hammers in his workshop that employs about 15 people, including children.
“He’s a big boss, even at his age,” Joseph jokes, pointing to a child of about eight or nine. “The tradition continues like that — it is an eternal way of life in Noailles,” he said.
Tourism has yet to take off in Haiti. For now, there are more souvenirs in circulation than visitors, so much of what is produced by Haiti’s artisans end up being purchased — sometimes for Haitian expatriate merchants — for sale to customers elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Artisan Bastien Jean Ricardo who sells his wares for the overseas market, has been fortunate enough to find a backer that promotes Haitian artisanal products.
For Ricardo, 36, his success was forged in youth, hammering iron at the same age he was learning to read.
“It was a little hard at first. I gave myself a few whacks on my finger with the hammer,” he recalls.
Ricardo’s wares are billed as “fair trade” yet he too follows the custom of training proteges at a tender age — illustrating the widespread reality of children working for a living in Haiti, despite child labour laws banning the practice on paper.
“I’m showing the craft to young people, but what I give them to do is easier” than the work he did at the same age, he said. “Some children start work at four or five years old. It is true that it’s dangerous, but one has nothing else beside that to live on.”
More than 60 per cent of the Haitian population earns less than two dollars a day, and nearly half of all homes are run by single parents, usually women — the group hardest hit by poverty.
“Placing a child in a situation where he has to work is not necessarily seen as something negative but as a bridge, a way to access the services that he otherwise would not have access to,” explained Inah Kaloga, UNICEF’s local child protection officer.
In Haiti, where 80 per cent of schools are private, Kaloga said, the cost for tuition, uniforms and other education-related expenses can be a burden for parents.
“Faced with these barriers to an education, for many families, the idea of children working is not about earning extra income to improve daily life, but about providing for children’s needs in a regular and sustainable way,” she said.
It is poverty like this that led Tyson Jean-Baptiste to the metal workshop in Noailles when he was just nine years old.
“Iron is the only thing on offer as a business, and I want to finish high school,” said Tyson, now 18.
But by no means every young child in work in Haiti can afford an education in parallel. For some, like little Samuel Jean, daily labour in the workshop is a matter of simple survival.
When work is plentiful in Noailles, the boy can earn as much as 10 dollars per day, a vital supplement to the living his father, a maize farmer, is able to eke from the land.
It is a grinding existence.
Samuel’s family of five squeezes into a makeshift shelter just a few square meters in size, sealed with plastic sheeting held up by sticks.
He makes his daily round of workshops and dreams of one day, perhaps, owning his own craft shop to peddle wares to tourists.