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.