Child Labor: Family-run enterprises in Liberia small-scale fishers replace day laborers with children


Children in the West African country’s small-scale fisheries are tasked with operations that expose them to severe injuries.

By George A. Harris   

Fourteen years old, William Wleh is not a stranger to how Liberia’s small-scale fisheries work. The lad spends most of his extracurricular time and weekends performing long-hour activities in this informal sector. William’s operations range from platting of fishing-nets to capturing of fish at deep sea. 

For Wleh Sr., his son’s involvement in small-scale fisheries relieved him of worries about securities issues threatening his business.   

The boys [not biological children]will carry your properties on sea and behave carelessly with them. If you are bad-lucky, they get damaged. When that happens, your life is also damaged because you will not be able to look after your family

So I prefer working with my child than to work with others. My son on the canoe will not see anything bad and hide it from me,” says forty-two years old Wleh.   

According to the UN, 60 percent of all children engaged in child labor is active in the agriculture sector, including fisheries, aquaculture, forestry, and flivestock.

Like Wleh Sr., other heads of family-run enterprises operating in the country’s small-scale fisheries sector are replacing day labourers with children due to changes that have affected the sector in the past decade.

On the one hand, small-scale fishers have suffered the consequences of climate change, such as sea-level rise, ocean flooding, severe extreme weather events, according to a World Bank report, and on the other hand, of policies instituted to accelerate national revenues, which can sometimes have a negative impact on the informal sector.

Additionally, the sector suffers the consequence of the reduction of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2017, former President of the republic, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, through Executive order-84 reduced the country’s EEZ from six to three nautical miles, a move interpreted to draw investors to the country’s fishing industry. Since then, there have been several complaints from small-scale fishers about trawlers destroying their nets and canoes. 

Emmanuel Kofi, a Ghanaian nationale who has been working in Liberia’s small-scale fisheries since the 1980s explains that during the low-catch season it is not cost-effective to have employees.   

Sometimes we go for months without a good catch. During this time, it becomes difficult to pay people that are working with you because business is moving slow. They just do not care whether there is a catch or not; all they know is that at the end of the month they must get their money. And this usually leads to problems between you, the employer and them.

“But if you are working with your children, fish or no fish, you are not worried about paying someone at the end of the month,” Kofi said.  

Children in Liberia’s small-scale fisheries communities go about performing their daily tasks uninterrupted by law-enforcers

Children below 18 years perform various activities in the country’s small-scale fisheries. Boys perform activities including fish capturing, nets setting at sea, withdrawing nets from waters, unloading nets, and platting of fishing nets.   

On the other hand, girls also spend long hours helping in post-harvest operations. Their tasks include sorting fish, cleaning fish with knives, drawing woods for ovens, cutting wood, and monitoring fish that are being smoke-dried.

However, children’s involvement in their parents’ businesses has an impact on their academic performances as they struggle for balance between activities at school and home. 

Unlike many children who attend school sessions that run from morning to afternoon hours, Grace Sackie 14, attends school sessions that run from afternoon to evening hours, a time when most students are occupied with after-school programs. She explains that the learning environment during such a time is not conducive for learning as compared to the morning sessions.

Teachers during this session are tired; they do not manage the class well, children make a lot of noise. I attend this session because I have to help my mother prepare the fish for the market during the morning hours,” said Grace.             

Consequences of Children Involvement

Child labour often prevents children from attending or completing compulsory education and can involve hazardous work that is detrimental to their social and physical development. This can trap them in situations of poverty, perpetuating the cycle of poverty for families and fishing communities, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.  

Of the 152 million children who are engaged in child labor, 71 percent are boys and girls working in the agricultural sector including fisheries, aquaculture. 

The International Labor Oragnization and Food and Agriculture Organization have called on members-state to ensure that conventions against child labor including FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labor, and Work in Fisheries Conventions, and ILO’s Minimum Age Convention are adhered to. 

According to William Boeh, Director of Technical Services at the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority of Liberia (NaFFA), the government of Liberia has charged several ministries and agencies to tackle child labor in the country’s small-scale fisheries. He disclosed during an interview via telephone.

It is a national inter-agencies collaboration. The ministries include the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority of Liberia (NaFFA), the Ministry of Labor (MoL), Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA), the Coast Guard Defense team, the National Police, and the Liberia Immigration Service (LIS). 

“I cannot speak to the roles of each ministry but for us at NaFFA, we report cases that involve children to the Ministry of Labor,” says Boeh.

Despite the establishment of the inter-agencies collaboration against child labor, regulating labor and standards under the purview of international conventions does not seem effective and it is unclear as to whether these delegate ministries and agencies have made a breakthrough in tackling children’s participation in small-scale fisheries. 

According to the UN, child labor poses threat to the sustainablilty of enterprises in small-scale fisheries

Efforts to reach out to the Ministry of Labor about the accomplishments of the Liberian government against child labor in small-scale fisheries were unfruitful. 

Nevertheless, the presence of delegate authorities responsible to ensure safety and standards is not really felt in small-scale fisheries communities, as children go about performing their daily tasks unhindered.  

Meanwhile, Jerry Blamo, President of Liberia Artisanal Fishermen Association (LAFA) has distanced small-scale fishers from absolute fault concerning child labor in the country’s small-scale fisheries sector.

We have sat around tables with the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Authority of Liberia (NaFFA) but not a day this issue of child labor was discussed. Each time we attempt bringing this to the table, they will tell us that it is not part of the meeting agenda; they will get to this another time. But years continue to pass and nothing is being done” says Blamo.

However, Blamo believes that sensitization on child-labor would help small-scale fishers understand the consequences involved. 

Go around and ask about child labor in small-scale fisheries; you will be surprised that our people do not even know what that is. I cannot recall a day national fisheries authorities took on awareness about child labor in small-scale fisheries. But sensitizing our people is important if this should be accomplished,” says Blamo. 

The project was supported by REJOPRA, Network of Journalists for Responsible and Sustainable Fisheries in Africa.


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