MONROVIA – Liberia’s Labor Minister Counselor Charles Gibson says the growing wave of abuse of children through force and hard labor, including street selling, has the propensity to destroy the country’s future.
By Obediah Johnson
Minister Gibson said the influx of children selling on the streets and being used as laborers in other areas is due to the failure of the Penal Code of Liberia to capture these violations.
He made these comments at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) press briefing held in Monrovia on Thursday, May 4.
He said as part of steps to address the situation, the government has forwarded to the Legislature a Child Labor Law to prevent the abuse of children.
“We want to use this occasion to inform the Liberian people that the abuse of our children is something that destroys the future of this country. We have before the Legislature a Child Labor Law. Thus far, children selling on the streets; children are being used in various work places-is not capture under our Penal Code. We have captured it in the legislation that is before both Houses and they are very determined to pass that law before elections.”
Minister Gibson disclosed that in consistent with international obligations, Liberia has for the first time released two lists defining categories of work as “Hazardous and Light Work Lists” to distinguish different types of works that should be done by both adults and children.
“To be an adult you must be 18. But the United Nations Protocol says ‘some children between 14 to 17 can do certain categories of work. And so, we have those lists and we will be releasing it to the media.”
He stressed that a child can be allowed to water a garden, sell in a shop at home, but cannot be made to sell in the streets among moving vehicles, climb a palm tree or do the works of adults.
When passed into law, he indicated that the new law will ensure that parents or guardians are held liable for allowing the children to engage into works that are meant for adults, including street selling, noting that, “there will be jail sentences for abuse of child labor.”
Minister Gibson further disclosed that the ministry has finalized the mapping of the entire country, establishing the total numbers of communities, current leaderships and their telephone directories.
He said the move is intended to create awareness in the various communities to help prevent abuse of children and human trafficking.
“We are going to each of those communities with awareness so that when they see a child that is doing a job that is not within the Light Work List, or when they noticed some movement that suggests that human trafficking is being lured, they will say something is happening here. The communities must also be the police to protect our children.”
The use of children as breadwinners of families is an aged-old problem in post-conflict Liberia. Children of school-going ages are seeing between moving vehicles selling in the streets during the morning and evening hours to put food on the tables for them and their respective family members.
The high cost of living and extreme poverty are factors responsible for the situation.
On Human trafficking
Minister Gibson disclosed that more than 100 Liberians have returned home from several countries around the world including Oman and Cyprus.
He said the government, with partnership from the International Migration Organization (IOM) shouldered medical bills, conducted professional social counseling, training, and provided the amount of US$1,500 to about 60 others for resettlement.
“This is not a favor and that’s what ever responsible government wants to do-to seek the interest of its people.”
He pointed out that additional three safe homes, with electricity, running water and others have been established for those who have returned.
Minister Gibson intoned that though government doesn’t know the circumstances under which its citizens were trafficked; taxpayers’ monies were used to facilitate their return to their homeland.
He said programs have also been initiated by the government to discourage girls from leaving Liberia for risky greener pasture elsewhere.
He said government will ensure the prosecution of those who are involved into trafficking women, girls and boys to other countries to “exploit their labor and for some of them to be used as sex slaves and for human parts.”
Minister Gibson pointed out that as part of efforts to discourage human trafficking; the Liberian government has also increased the penalty of the crime to 20 years imprisonment.
According to him, the stance taken by Liberia is also being adopted by countries within the ECOWAS region.
He said many entities or companies have been fined for violating the labor laws of Liberia, while others have been given ultimatum to correct the wrongs.
Minister Gibson, however, did not name a particular company or entity that has been fined.
Reacting to reports that the government has not done well for trade unions operating in Liberia, Minister Gibson cautioned human rights and civil society actors against using their respective platforms to politicize the current situation the Liberia Labor Congress (LLC) is faced with.
For several years now, the LLC has been without a leadership.
He said religious institutions should not use the church to stir confusion ahead of the ensuing October 10 presidential and legislative elections in Liberia.
He disclosed that government has been very supportive of the workings of the various unions operating in Liberia as evidenced by the collective heaping of praises on it by representatives of various unions that were represented at the just ended International Labor Day celebration held at the Ministerial Complex in Congo Town, outside Monrovia on May 1.
“This government is committed to ensuring that we have strong labor unions. It is the unions that will advocate for the workers and come forth and tell us that this is happening at this concession.”
Civil Servants Not Under Labor Or Trade Union
Minister Gibson further termed as untrue recent claim made by the Civil Servants Association (CSA) that government is depriving them the right to be a part of the LLC.
He recalled that prior to his appointment at the ministry; the group has been requesting to form part of the LLC-a request that was denied by the court in February 2020.
He added that the court at the time deemed the Civil Servants Workers Union of Liberia as an incorporated association comprising of civil servants working in government, and as such, the body cannot be subjected to the Decent Work Act that governs employees and workers of private institutions, businesses and companies in Liberia.
Minister Gibson maintained that the CSWUL is not a labor or trade union as per the Labor Law of Liberia, and as such, it has not been eligible for membership within the LLC.
He noted that the Supreme Court in 2022 confirmed that the February 2020 elections held by the LLC was “null and void.”
Minister Gibson disclosed that the results of the elections were nullified by the High Court on grounds that the newly elected President of the LLC was a civil servant who was being governed by the Civil Servants Act and wanted to also be governed by the Decent Work Act intended for the private sector.
The court also mandated the Ministry of Labor to constitute a credible team that will conduct the elections of the LLC.
Following the ruling from the lower court, the LLC took an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the appeal was rejected.
“You have two laws-Civil Servants Act and the Decent Work Act. If you want to merge them, you have to go back to the Legislature to do it. But as far as the way it is, civil servants cannot be trade union. The President of the Civil Servants Association ran under some arrangement and became President of the LLC. The court said no way, it can’t happen.”
Meanwhile, Minister Gibson has reported that labor standards are being upheld by the government to ensure that workers are paid better wages, their rights are protected, and they are given preference for better employment opportunities as compare to expatriates.
He said the ministry has received huge logistical support from the government and its partners to carry out vigorous monitoring of the labor sector across the country.
He said various regulations and standing orders are also being enforced by the government to provide job opportunities for Liberians.
Minister Gibson, however, called on citizens to acquire vocational skills and training in various technical disciplines to be hired by companies and businesses in a timely manner.
He said though he does not intend to discourage Liberians from pursuing other academic disciplines, those acquiring vocational and technical skills have greater advantage to get jobs following the completion of their studies as compare to their counterparts.