Crushing poverty in Gaza pushes some children into the labor market

Children, like brothers Makram and Yassin Tilbani, work up to 12 hours a day for as little as 10 shekels, in an attempt to help their families survive.

Every morning, Wesam Al-Louh wakes her two children, 12-year-old Muhammad and 11-year-old Rami, to have breakfast before leaving the house for work.

The children dress themselves hurriedly in their well-worn work clothes, stained with tire lubricant. 

It is now summer break, and both brothers work full-time at two different car tire repair shops, and have been working there for the past three years to meet the needs of their family of 8.

Their father, Ali, married another woman five years ago, abandoning his wife and children. What’s more, Ali has been in prison ever since 2019 for the non-payment of debts.

The family is supposed to receive 1100 NIS in governmental welfare every three months, but due to the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) shortage of foreign aid, the family was paid only 400 shekels two months ago, in more than a year.

The preteen tire technicians

When Muhammad reached the workshop, he found two cars and a motorbike waiting for him, all with flat tires.

“I work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” said Muhammad, after repairing the tires. “My work is hard, but I get used to it. I have to work to help my family. When I go home at 8 p.m., I take a shower and fall asleep right away.” 

When he goes to school, he doesn’t go home to study, he goes to the tire shop instead. “I go to work after school, and go home around 8 p.m. Then, I take a shower and study, but my work has badly affected my schoolwork,” he said. “My GPA used to be 80% three years ago, but now it’s 65%. I don’t like work, but I feel I bear a heavy responsibility.”

Muhammad’s brother, Rami, works in a nearby workshop.

“I’ve worked here for two years,” says Rami, as he sinks a tire into a bathtub of dirty water in order to find the puncture. “I work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for 5 shekels. Replacing and repairing tires is exhausting. When I hold a tire, I feel I might fall. But I can’t ask my boss for help, because he will shout at me.” 

He continues: “All I want to do is sleep when I go home from school, but I can’t, because I have to go to the workshop. When I leave work, I always feel so exhausted, to the point where I can’t study, so I just shower and fall asleep.”

Ever since their father was imprisoned, both boys have had to work. Their mother is all too aware of what this means for their future.

“When I see them at work, my heart shatters,” Wesam says as she cries. “They are deprived of their childhood, the pleasures of life, and they are deprived of their father. They can’t play, they can’t go to the mosque, they can’t go to summer camps. They only have time to play on Friday, their day off.” 

Wesam also notices how their work has adversely affected their psychological well being. “They are always sad,” she laments despairingly. “They are supposed to play and go to the mosque, to memorize and recite the Quran like other children their age.” Then, she adds in resignation: “But our conditions are so harsh.”

The bike boys

In the Al-Maghazi refugee camp, located in the center of the Gaza Strip, Yassin Tilbani, 11, was replacing a bike wheel for another kid, in a bike workshop run by his cousin. It took him up to ten minutes to replace the wheel.

“I’ve been working during the summer holiday for the past two year,” said Yassin, wiping his forehead with blackened hands. “I work from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, for 5 to 10 shekels. I hate it.”

His honesty is disarming. “I work to earn more money to buy what I need,” he continues. “Honestly, I wish I could leave work to go out and play like the rest of my classmates.” 

With iron certainty, he adds: “When I become a man I will be a doctor, and I’ll never let my children work.”

Yassin’s older brother, Makram, is 17. He was sitting next to him on a small wooden chair with a splintered back.

“I’ve been working here for three years,” he said. “My father told me to work and pay my expenses. If I had the choice to leave work, I would do it and enjoy my holiday. But I work for ten to 12 hours every day, for ten shekels.”

Akram, Makram and Yassin’s father, believes children should work, so that they would grow to be independent and self-sufficient adults in the future.

“I worker at a gas station for 1000 shekels a month. I can’t always afford my family’s needs, so my sons need to work to cover their needs too,” said the father of five. “Their work pays for things like their school uniforms and aid clothes. I want them to be independent men in the future. The economic situation here is harsh. My son Khaled is 21 years old, and he has been working in distributing food products to small groceries for the past five years. He is a man now.”

The teenage tailor

In a small sewing workshop in Al-Shuja’iya, east of Gaza, 13-year-old Muhannad Al-Gharabli was cutting a piece of fabric while sweat was pouring down from his forehead.

He has been working for three years with his father, Muhammad, who cannot afford to employ a new tailor.

Before the 15-year siege, his father used to export clothes to the West Bank and Israel, and earned up to $7000 a month. Now he works for the local markets and barely makes $200, making him struggle to meet his family’s needs.

“I can’t participate in the mosque trips to the sea, because the fee is 10 shekels,” said Muhannad. “I feel bad when I see my friends and schoolmates having fun with their families while I am at work.”

 “I won’t allow my children to work when I become a father. If I had the chance to leave work, I would stay home and play,” he continued.

Of course, Muhannad’s education was badly affected. “Since I started working, my scores have gone from 95 to 80%,” he told us.

The effects of child labor

The percentage of child labor (children aged 10-17 years old) in Gaza is 0.9% (in the West Bank it is slightly higher at 3.8%), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics

This statistic is not necessarily accurate as there are many working children who are under-reported.

The Israeli siege on Gaza, which has been ongoing without interruption ever since 2007, in addition to the consecutive wars and destruction visited upon the coastal Strip, most recently Operation Breaking Dawn, have crippled Gaza’s economy. Rising food prices as a result of these factors, as well as the Russian-Ukrainian war, has all created additional pressures on families to seek work, including children. The poverty rate in the impoverished Strip was 53%  in 2022, and food insecurity stands at 68.5%. 

Child labor is a dangerous phenomenon because it exposes children to countless forms of harm and exploitation, including sexual harassment and labor exploitation. It badly affects their educational achievements, forcing them to drop out of school. And even beyond that, the prevalence of child labor is itself an alarming indicator of families’ desperation in the face of crushing poverty — the majority of families with working children live below the poverty line, unsurprisingly.

Yahya Khader, the Director-General of Mental Health at Gaza’s Healthy Ministry, spoke about the effects of child labor on children’s mental health development.

“Child labor negatively impacts children, their self-conception, abilities, and view of the future,” he said. “But these are the circumstances in our country.”