In the shadow of Azerbaijan’s sophisticated capital Baku, amid the high-rise buildings and ultra-modern architecture, young children are being forced to work.
While most are driven to beg by their families, others are employed by businesses taking advantage of loopholes and shortcomings in Azerbaijan’s laws. The problem, which has been persistent for years, has been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to children’s rights specialists and lawyers.
Fifteen-year-old Zahra (not her real name) is a good example: she and her two siblings were recently found begging and placed in a shelter for vulnerable children.
“The girls were forced to beg and help care for their household,” explains Kamala Agazadeh, the chairman of the Azerbaijan Children's Public Union.
The children are now living in a shelter run by the Azerbaijan Children’s Public Union. “They are all eager to be educated. Of course, the environment in which the children found themselves is one of the reasons why they could not go to school,” she says. “These days, if those children want to open a book and take an active role in the lessons, it is a message for society.”
It is a message that can be difficult for adults to receive and act on, notes education specialist Kamran Asadov.
“The country as a whole does not have complete statistics on forced labor,” he says. “There are cases of children working in agriculture… There are also many children begging or selling in Fountain Square.”
Asadov adds that a recent case of a 15-year-old boy found selling popcorn in a local restaurant underscores the lack of engagement by the education ministry.
“The Ministry of Education should closely monitor attendance in secondary schools,” he says. “The educational institution should have been interested in that child. The incident shows the irresponsibility of the relevant agencies.”
A 2020 report by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs found that 4.5 percent (approximately 70,000) of children between the ages of four and 14 in Azerbaijan are working and not going to school. An additional 4.9 percent between the ages of seven and 14 are going to school and working.
“Children in Azerbaijan are subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including in commercial sexual exploitation and forced begging. Children also engage in child labor in agriculture,” the report states, noting that while the government has taken steps to address the issue, but it has achieved “minimal advancement” in solving the problem due to loopholes and inadequate implementation.
“Coordinating bodies, including the State Committee on Family, Women and Children's Affairs, lack the capacity to effectively carry out their mandates,” the report states. “In addition, police typically treat children begging or engaging in street work as a family issue, rather than screening for indicators of forced begging. As a result, cases may not be properly referred for criminal investigation and prosecution.”
The loopholes in the law not only mean children are not going to school; they also make it harder to hold adults accountable for forcing them to work in the first place, according to lawyer Fariz Akbarov, who specializes in labor-related cases.
“Many children who are begging are not documented and, therefore, if they are forced to beg by family members or close relatives, it will be treated as an administrative offense. If those children have documents, however, [forced labor] is already treated as a criminal offense.”
The result is that “before and during the pandemic, child labor was and continues to be exploited, mostly in begging and the sale of goods,” he says.
Medina, a young girl who begs with her grandmother in central Baku, told Chai Khana that she dreams of becoming a teacher when she is older. “I will be a teacher. Because if I become a teacher, I will go to school.”
Today, however, she doesn't even have a pencil and paper at home. Instead, she spends her time begging for money near Baku’s Nizami metro station so her family does not go hungry.
“We have real troubles,” Medina’s grandmother, who does not give her name or age, says. “My son has been bedridden since summer. He is disabled. My four grandchildren, me, my sick son and my daughter-in-law live in a rented house. There are many people in the family, but no one works. Only I try to support the family with this child. I know nobody will help us, so I do not ask for anything.”
The government has made some steps to address the issue, albeit with delays. The US Bureau of International Labor Affairs reported that in 2020, the government approved the National Action Plan on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, among other actions. Baku postponed a law that would eliminate the “worse forms of child labor,” however, and only started labor inspections in 2022.
Currently, the monitoring is the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Problems and the executive branch, which established special monitoring groups under its control, according to Kamala Ashumova, the executive director of the Public Union of Social Initiatives "Hopeful Future,” which works with vulnerable children. However, most monitoring is focused on children being abused, not the question of if they are being exploited, she says.
The State Labor Inspection Service under the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection told Chai Khana that during the 2020 quarantine period, there seven cases of employers hiring people under the age of 15 were discovered: four children were found working in the housing and catering sector; two children were found working in the retail sector; and one was found working in the transport sector. The employers were given administrative fines. In addition, the inspection service conducted special activities to raise people’s awareness of the problem across the country last year.
Azerbaijani children welfare advocates like Ashumova worry that the monitoring is not enough to make a difference, however, as they have seen an increase in cases.
“In 2021 we received 13 appeals on child labor exploitation…Children exposed to street life and selling napkins, children begging and selling household items, or children whose parents are sick, forced into labor by their parents and deprived of their earnings,” Ashumova, says, citing her organization’s experience working with children.
“In my experience, the monitoring conducted by these organizations will not yield any results. Because juvenile commissions under the executive authorities generally do not work on children’s issues. There is no systematic operation. There is no accountability to each other.”
This article was produced in the framework of the Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022