In a country where half the population live in absolute poverty, child laborers are a part of Iran’s economy.
The board of directors of the Social Commission of the Majlis said in 2017 that the number of child laborers in Iran, according to most unofficial estimates, was between 3 and 7 million.
Many children in Iran are forced to drop out of school due to poverty and the economic crisis and enter the labor market to provide for themselves and their families. These children face daily violence and abuse on Iran’s dangerous streets and workshops.
Over 5% of construction work in Iran is carried out by child laborers, despite its harsh and dangerous nature. Factory owners take advantage of child laborers by employing them on low wages.
According to a report by the state-run ILNA News Agency in July 2019, the number of employed children aged 10 to 17 were 410,000 in 2017.
ISNA News Agency conducted several interviews with child trash scavengers in Karaj near Tehran who are employed by the city’s municipality. The children are all kept in a “garage” where they sleep at night.
According to one of the children, “each municipality has a ‘Master’”.
“This area is his responsibility and we only search within this region. If we leave the region, municipality agents will come and take us,” the child laborer said.
The child laborers work on the streets, some with motorcycles, some with bikes, but most with big sacks on their backs. They search garbage bins, construction rubble, and junkyards for recyclable items. Most of them are under 20.
14-year-old Vahid: Breadwinner
Vahid is the youngest child trash scavenger, but they all admit he works more and better than his older counterparts. “We are 14 people altogether in our family. I am the oldest. My father is old and has one kidney so he cannot work,” he says shyly.
Q: How many hours a day do you work and how much do you earn?
“I leave the garage at seven in the morning and return to sleep at night. Each day, I collect 30 to 40 kilograms of recyclable waste and sell it to the Master. He buys them for 1,500 tomans (10 cents) per kilogram.”
Q: Is this income enough for a family of 14 to make ends meet?
“I do not know. I give the money to my mom every month and come back to the garage. I do not know if it’s enough for them or not. I cannot work more unless I have a cart.”
“We are here from Mashhad (NE Iran). Our family lives in Malard (Tehran) but I stay in the Master’s garage so I can work here. I have been to school up to the second grade and I had to drop out when I came here. My 7-year-old brother should have started school this year, but it was not possible. We need a smartphone for school, but we don’t have it now.”
Q: How many are you living in your Master’s garage?
A 17-year-old boy named Hadi says, “This is one of the Master’s garages. He has three in Karaj. There are 20 of us staying here at nights. The garage is divided into rooms. Some Afghan-nationals also live here and pay rent to the Master.”
Hadi is illiterate and has never been to school. He has calloused hands and a firm voice that indicates his superiority among the children. Hadi said he has come from Mashhad as well. “My father passed away, and I have six younger sisters. My mother works in a tailor’s workshop, and they sleep there at nights with my sisters and also guard the workshop at nights. I will work so they can go to school.”
Q: Who is the ‘Master’?
“We all called him Master from the very beginning. We sell our junk to him, and get the days’ pay,” Hadi says referring to the Municipality official.
Q: What does the Master do with the junk?
“He has a deal with the municipality. This area is his responsibility and we only search within this region. If we leave the region, municipality agents will come and take us.”
“The Master has three garages and rides a luxury car. He is rich and has a lot of workers working for him. He also has a large gym in Tehran. He is a coach and very athletic,” Vahid adds.
Q: Do you have an older brother?
Vahid smiles bitterly and says, “If I had an older brother, I would not have to work like this.”
Vahid, like thousands of other child laborers, is the breadwinner of his family and will suffer to make ends meet.
Widespread poverty and child labor
The common factor of these children’s stories is poverty and unemployment. Vahid and Hadi have never had time to themselves. Although they are teenagers, they spend all their time working so their families can survive. Instead of going to school and having fun, they spend their time scavenging trash.
In Iran, the massive gap between the minimum wage and a family’s basic needs, coupled with unemployment, forces families to send their children out into the streets and sweatshops.
Economic problems directly affect the lives of the underprivileged, marginalized and working-class families, and the first victims of this violence are children who are forced to leave school and eventually become employed in the labor market.
The regime has turned a blind eye to this growing tragedy. Despite the regime’s claims of championing the poor, regime elites live a life of luxury in Tehran’s Lavasan region, dubbed the “Beverly Hills of Iran”.