“They Bear All the Pain” : Hazardous Child Labor in Afghanistan

The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws. The 31-page report, “‘They Bear All the Pain’: Hazardous Child Labor in Afghanistan,” documents how child workers work dangerous jobs in Afghanistan’s carpet industry; as bonded labor in brick kilns; and as metal workers. They perform tasks that could result in illness, injury, or even death due to hazardous working conditions and poor enforcement of safety and health standards. Many children who work under those conditions combine the burdens of a job with school, or forego education altogether. Working compels many children in Afghanistan to leave school prematurely. Only half of children involved in child labor attend school.

In Afghanistan, childhood is often a full-time job

Sami Rahimi sleeps fitfully on a bread rack above the bakery’s cold concrete floor. He rises at 5 a.m., sweeps up, washes in a pan of chilly water, then prays. Before the sun has risen, Sami is pushing a dented wheelbarrow through the dim streets, at 13 still a tiny figure among the vegetable hawkers and butchers slicing bloody flanks of sheep from carcasses hung on hooks. He gathers water from a public well and takes it back to the bakery.

By 6 a.m., the gas-fired stone kiln is glowing a fiery red, ready to bake the flat loaves known as khasa and the round loaves called kamachi. Sami sweeps a platform where hot flatbread is stacked for sale. He then sits cross-legged to begin selling loaves for 10 afghanis, about 20 cents each, to customers who thrust bills through a window that he opens and closes with a long metal hook.

Working until dark six days a week, Sami earns about $80 a month, enough to support his entire family: disabled father, mother, three brothers and five sisters. Sami has been at the bakery since he was 10, when he rode a bus from the countryside to assist his uncle, Yar Mohammed, who himself began at age 8. “I’m happy I can support my family, but I would rather go to school and be an educated person,” Sami says. He shrugs as he flips over a steaming loaf with his hook, a weary gesture that makes him seem old and careworn.