Riyadh: Child labour is a serious social problem facing Saudi Arabia where nearly 1.54 per cent of the child population works, says a recent study.

The study, the first of its kind in the kingdom, commissioned by the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology and conducted by Dr Mohammad Abdullah Al Naji, showed that the Eastern Province tops the list in child labour at 2.3 per cent followed by Makkah, Madinah, Asir and Riyadh.

Common prominent social characteristics among working children include the low professional and educational standards of their parents, large family size and inadequate support for children by their families and low levels of achievement in schools.

The study also indicated that economic issues are the primary driving factors for child labour, followed by other factors that include dropping out of school and domestic pressure. Some 2,000 Saudi children surveyed in the study were either interviewed by Naji or asked to fill out questionnaires he designed.

Researchers, meanwhile, say child labour has spread all over Saudi cities.

"You can see them in front of the Two Holy Mosques as well as at public parks, traffic intersections, and corniches," Saud Fahd Al Shahri, a Saudi researcher, told Gulf News, while attributing the major factors for this phenomenon to poverty and the low standard of living of a large number of illegal foreigners who overstay in the kingdom, especially in major cities.

"Family disintegration, low cultural awareness, ignorance about provisions of laws regarding child labour, and trafficking of children from neighbouring countries, especially Yemen, are the contributing factors," he said.

Children, according to the study, are mostly employed in the business sector followed by agriculture.

Naji wrote in his conclusions that Saudi Arabia has enacted a number of laws on child labour, including that the minimum employment age be 13 in all areas, with the exception of family businesses and domestic labour, as well as animal herding and some agricultural jobs.

Saud Al Shahri added the number of homeless children in the kingdom is 83,000. Referring to another study carried out in this regard, he said that nearly 69 per cent of child beggars in Riyadh are Saudis.

"About 88 per cent of mothers of child beggars are illiterate and only nine per cent of them hold even an elementary school certificate."

"Poverty breeds a poor culture for these children and it forces them to resort to begging and street jobs to make a living for them as well as their family members," he added.

Meanwhile, Dr Mohammad Al Naji drew attention to Article 32 of the Children's Rights Act that stipulates a six-hour working day, with time off for rest. It also says that children are not to work for five hours straight or at night. Furthermore, the employment of children in strenuous or hazardous jobs is prohibited, and child labour in general should be voluntary, not compulsory.

The law also says a child's work should not interfere with his or her schooling or be harmful to the child's health, either physically, mentally, spiritually, morally or socially. Naji also said that the regulation specifies penalties for those employing children below the age of 13, and that civil service regulations do not allow the employment of anyone below the age of 18. Articles 37 and 38 of the law are a showcase of the kingdom's attention to minors.

They stipulate that minors should not be subjected to torture, abuse or harsh penalties, and that they should have access to physical and psychological rehabilitation and re-integration into the community

Quoting reports published by Unicef, Naji said that in 1989, the number of children employed worldwide was nearing 250 million, aged between five and 14. Unicef's reports add that these children are taken advantage of and employed under inhumane conditions.

"Some 100 million children toil in jobs which threaten their health all the time," said Naji.

"According to a report released by the International Labour Office in 2002, third world countries alone have 50 million children working in various vocations with a hazardous influence on their health."

Regarding the findings of the survey conducted in the kingdom on child labour, Naji said that the psychological well-being of employed children was higher than that of unemployed children.

It was found employed children do not attend school regularly. The children said that work did not pose a hazard to their physical health and that they were working voluntarily and were satisfied with their work.