Portugal's children reap bitter harvest

Even within the EU, rural poverty can still force parents to set their children to work, reports Elizabeth Nash

Braga - Francisco Jose da Silva was only 13 when he died. His headstone, near Braga, in Portugal's northern Minho region, reads: "Jesus called me from this world. My time had come. Destiny was to blame. Not Mr Mora's factory."

The couplet, paid for by the employer to mollify Francisco's family, is rare testimony to the widespread but hidden practice of child labour in one of the least developed corners of Europe. Statistics are hard to come by. Trade unionists in Braga reckon there could be tens of thousands, but inspectors find fewer than 200 a year. Nearly all the 95 factories fined last year for employing children - a civil offence in Portugal - were from around Braga.

The area known as the Vale do Ave has the country's lowest wages, highest unemployment rate, and the densest proportion of women and children in Europe. A rural area famed for its vinho verde, in the mid-1980s the Vale do Ave experienced a boom in factories employing unskilled labour for making and finishing clothes and shoes.

Recession has thrown this precarious economy into crisis. The valley is dotted with abandoned factories, some little more than garages, and the mostly female workers are trickling back to the land. Adao Mendes, of the General Workers Confederation in Braga, said 30,000 jobs in the area have gone in six years.

"A few years ago I had difficulty getting workers during the harvest," said Eulalia Moreno, a wine grower whose vineyard is near Braga. "They preferred to work in the factory. But now they offer to work for me for less than the legal minimum of 52,000 escudos [pounds 260] a month."

She adds: "Two years ago I bought granite paving stones for my patio. The stones were unloaded by children, some only eight years old. Their little hands were calloused, the insides of their nostrils white with dust."

I went with her as she visited the quarry owner's house to inquire about more stone. One of the young sons glanced to the side and said the quarry had been covered with soil seven years ago and was now being farmed.

Amerigo Monteiro, of the Commercial Workers Union in Braga, a member of the National Confederation for Action on Child Labour, said: "There are no clear statistics because the activity is clandestine. As the number of cases discovered increased, the practice has been driven further underground. Government statistics say the trend is downwards, but in my opinion things have not improved."

As factories have closed, Mr Mendes said, families are increasingly doing piece-work at home, out of reach of government inspectors. "The employers take shoe or garment pieces to be stitched or finished in the family home, and collect the products at the end of the week. The parents collude in the illegal employment of their children, not only from economic necessity, but from a traditional belief that it is part of becoming an adult."

Maria Perreira da Lima, who has the sturdy beauty typical of minhota women, has 10 children, aged from 20 to 14 months. They live in a two- room house with cement walls in the village of Briteiros, near Braga. Two of her sons, Gabriel, 13, and Joao Carlos, 12, worked in a local garment factory for two years until it closed last year.

The boys said they worked from 8.30am to 12.30pm, threading cords through the waistbands of tracksuit trousers, and earned 5,000 escudos a month. They said they liked it, and would jump into the surrounding scrubland when the inspector came round.

"I let them go to the factory," Donha Maria explained, "because they were secure there and not roaming the streets, getting into trouble. Also they were learning something useful. If they stayed at school they'd only learn English, and what's the point of that? They'll never go to England."

Her daughter, Elisabeth, 20, started in the factory at 12 as a machinist and now earns 75,000 escudos a month, which she gives to her mother. Did Donha Maria regret illegally depriving her children of education? "No. We needed the money. But Elisabeth now asks me why I didn't let her stay at school, so I promised that Maria Manuela" - an eight-year-old scrap edges forward - "would stay on, because she's too fragile for factory work."

The governing Socialists are thinking of shifting responsibility for child labour from the labour ministry to that of education. But Mr Monteiro sees no quick fix. "There won't be a solution until families' economic situation is improved, and there is a change in a culture that sees child labour as normal and acceptable," he said.

Suggested Topics
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
News
news
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
life
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
News
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst,HR,Halifax,£400-450pd

£400 - £450 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Project Coordinator - Cisco Partner - £110 p/d

£110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator (SC Cleared), Cisco Go...

Recruitment Consultants - IT - Trainee / Experienced

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £40-50K first year: SThree: The SThree group i...

Primary teachers needed for supply in Huntingdon

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers need...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone