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Never-ending harvest: child labor in Turkey

by Recep Argunaga | Support to Life
Thursday, 14 March 2019 09:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Despite Turkey's commitment to end child labour by 2015, there may still be as many as 2 million children forced to work

Recep Argunaga is a social worker at Support to Life.

It’s the height of summer and I am staring out the window of a car on the way to Alapli, a small town on the Black Sea coast in northern Turkey. I am going there to work on a project combatting child labour but I have been to Alapli before: I went there as a 13-year old child worker for the hazelnut harvest 16 years ago.

I remember that first journey to Alapli. Me and my relatives crammed into a minivan as we departed on a 20-hour journey from our hometown of Diyarbakır in southeast Turkey.

The first thing we had to do after arriving in Alapli was to clean the basement where we were going to live during the harvest. When I woke up before sunrise for my first shift, little did I know that what seemed to me like a thrilling adventure would morph into a tiresome routine.

Every morning we would hop onto to the tractor’s trailer and head to the groves to begin the day’s work, toiling under the scorching sun for up to 12 hours-a-day.

I was among the luckier kids since I had to work at the harvest only for the summer. Later I returned home and back to school, while other children and their families had to work throughout the year, unable to go to school at all.

Turkey recognizes use of child labor in seasonal agriculture as one of the three worst forms of child labor, and made a commitment to the International Labor Organisation (ILO) to end it by 2015. Yet, according to a 2018 report, there may still be as many as 2 million children forced to work in Turkey.

Sadly, tackling the problem in Turkey may now be more challenging than ever. While global food prices are decreasing, Turkey is struggling with skyrocketing food prices. Between January 2017 and January 2018, food prices in Turkey increased 31 percent. In these circumstances, Turkish policymakers are unlikely to feel compelled to improve working conditions or earnings of agricultural workers, a move which could increase the cost of food further.

Families do not earn enough to break the cycle of poverty, even though some work for over 11 hours-a-day, 7 days a week. The only way to alleviate debt is to fully utilize the labor potential of the entire family, and to work for longer periods during the year. This means that the children have to work more in the field and are unable to go to school, deepening their disadvantages in the future.

During my recent work in Alapli I met 12-year old Zeynep - just one among many working children full of hope and potential. She became a regular in the psycho-social support activities we conducted in Alapli for children like her that are removed from school due the long harvest cycle.

When I asked her what she would like to do when she grew up, she said: “My family’s job is fixed. I will work in the field like my family, and collect (scrap) papers when back home.”

Two weeks into our work in Alapli, Zeynep began saying “I want to become a nurse”, which later changed to: “I will become a nurse.”

Our work in Alapli lasted only a month because hazelnut was scarce that year. It is difficult to make a significant impact in a short period. Facilitating children’s return to school in such a short time is simply not possible. Yet distancing them from work even for a short while, reminding them that they are merely children and that they should enjoy their childhood is precious in itself.

I sure hope to cross paths with nurse Zeynep in an entirely different setting.