The children forced to do man's work

WHEN you first meet Charles Anderson, he seems an ordinary schoolboy: working hard for his A-levels, enjoying life with his friends. But Charles once had another life in the fields of Kenya, earning a pittance, afraid of being beaten for not doing his job. Now, he is 19; when he was first a coffee picker he was just seven.

The plight of boys like Charles was highlighted yesterday when an unusual petition, made up of thousands of footprints, was handed in to 10 Downing St as part of a global campaign against child labour. Schoolchildren from across the UK and Ireland have drawn around their feet to show support for the campaign.

The Global March Against Child Labour began in the Philippines. Its next stop is the International Labour Organisation Headquarters in Geneva, at the start of June, where a new agreement to outlaw the most exploitative forms of child labour will be discussed.

When Charles began his working life, he was paid just 10p a day for picking coffee. His mother received 30p for the same work. "My mother was a single lady and we lived in a shanty town," he says. "I also worked in a quarry, breaking stones and loading them into vehicles."

Charles was forced to leave home by a stepfather who regularly beat him. "In our community, single mothers were shunned and by way of punishment they were forced to live with a older men." When the beatings became too much, he went to live with his grandmother. He still had to work in the fields. Then his grandmother fell ill.

"I desperately needed to earn enough money from working in the fields to pay for medicine for her, but I failed to do so and she died," he said. After her death, Charles had nowhere else to go and was forced on to the streets of Nairobi. "I just walked out one morning and went to look for a job to get some money for food."

Life on the streets was even harder. "I picked up plastic bags, papers and other things that could be sold to the recycling industry but none of it paid enough and I ended up begging," he says. "We often ate food just picked out of the gutter, even if it was three days old, because if you did not eat, you died."

Four years ago, his luck changed. He met Pat Botwright, from Norfolk. She had moved to Kenya in 1993 to set up an orphanage for street children in Nairobi. She gave Charles a place at the Covenant House Family Unit and his first opportunity to study.

"It was only when I went to the orphanage at the age of 16 that I slept on a mattress for the first time." Last September, after passing seven O-level standard qualifications, he came to England to study for A-levels in business studies, economics, European history and geography at Bedford Modern School.

"It is only due to the grace of God that I am now studying here after all that happened to me in Kenya," says Charles.

While he supports the Global March, he has no illusions about what is required to eradicate child labour - and that is economic change. "If wages don't increase for people then children will always be forced to earn money. If members of my family had been paid a proper wage, then I would not have had to work."

As well as hoping for a favourable convention at the ILO, march organisers are seeking other measures that will lead to the eventual outlawing of child slave labour. British companies are being urged to adopt independently monitored codes that preclude goods that have been produced by exploiting children. States are also being pressed to strengthen and implement their national laws on child labour, and compulsory education, in accordance with the international conventions on the rights of the child.

All of the global marchers hope to outlaw the type of situation that has led to so many children like Charles Anderson spending their lives labouring on the streets rather than in the classroom.

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