Spotlight interview with Abdelaziz Mountassir (SNE-Morocco)

"How to motivate teachers to fight against child labour"

Keeping children in school is the best way to stop their exploitation as child labour. On the eve of World Day Against Child Labour, Abdelaziz Mountassir, vice president of Morocco’s national teachers’ union SNE(Syndicat National des Enseignants), explains how a project in the Fez region is helping to reduce school dropout rates at the same time as benefiting the union.

How did the SNE first get involved in the fight against child labour?

Around 400,000 children drop out of school every year in Morocco, almost 250,000 of whom are still at primary level. That means 250,000 illiterate and uneducated families in the future. It’s a handicap for both the country’s economic and democratic development. We came up with actions to tackle this problem within the framework of cooperation between the SNE and the Dutch teachers’ union AOB. Our task is usually to defend teachers’ interests, but we decided to look into how to motivate teachers to get involved in the fight against child labour.

We organised debates with our members in the Fez region to determine the role that schools can play in combating child labour. Our project is based on preventing school abandonment: defending children’s right to education and encouraging children to stay in school, as children who do not go to school are children that enter work prematurely. We decided to carry out a project in five schools in the poorest areas of Fez, where there are many handicraft and metal workshops employing children.

What kind of actions have you organised?

We started in 2004 with training programmes for teachers: on children’s rights, the dangers of child labour, listening techniques for children and adults, follow up, remedial teaching methods,... We also held workshops for the pupils’ parents, to raise consciousness about their children’s right to education, the consequences of child labour on their health, their future, etc. There were also activities aimed at trade union representatives, to build their capacities to organise, plan activities, ensure follow up, negotiate with school directors and the public authorities, etc.

We also carry out activities to raise public awareness and to put pressure on policy decision makers. We run stands in the streets of Fez where we talk about child labour or at events such as education fairs or young teachers’ forums. We present photos of our activities, of paintings done by the children, video films taken during various events. We have not, unfortunately, been able to secure television coverage yet.

What type of activities do you carry out directly with the children?

Some of the activities with children take place within schools: expression through movement, painting, theatre, music, etc. This changes children’s image of the educational establishment. Two NGOs are helping us with these activities, as well as to organise summer camps. Over the last two years we have taken almost 120 children from the five schools to summer camps for two weeks. They were the most destitute children and we didn’t want them to spend their entire holidays on the streets. The aim was also to strengthen their bond with school and our programme.

At the same time we also involved children in small research activities, organising outings, for example, for groups of 15 to 20 children, who visit child labour workshops. They see the children working for themselves, their working conditions, and they then give a presentation on their mini-research activities in class.

Another important aspect of this project is that we offer glasses to children with poor eyesight, so that they do not lose motivation in the classroom. We have an agreement with the Health Ministry: we take a group of children to the public hospital where they are given priority to have their eyes tested, and then we go to an optician who does us a special deal, knowing that we have no commercial objective.

We have set up libraries in the five schools involved in the project as well as support classes for children with poor marks, because poor results are one of the reasons for parents taking their children out of school. As the parents themselves are uneducated, they do not realise the importance of investing in education, and think that their children would be better off learning a trade.

Do you work with the authorities as part of the project?

In 2004, the Education Minister sent us a letter of agreement in principle regarding cooperation with the project, which paved the way for a partnership agreement with the local education authorities in Fez. In 2009, we succeeded in securing a partnership between the SNE and the Education Ministry to encourage other regional education authorities to cooperate in the fight against child labour and school abandonment.

A good understanding with the national and local education authorities is crucial to the success of this project. It convinces the school directors to let us organise our activities, to take part in them, to provide a space to set up a library, to allow teachers to take part in training workshops, etc.

What can teachers do when a child stops attending school?

One reproach made to schools is that they do not follow up on children who drop out. The teacher indicates their absences but never asks why a child has not come. One of the project’s achievements is that it has raised teachers’ awareness about the need to ensure this follow up, as children who are absent from time to time are more likely to drop out entirely one day or another. Teachers therefore have to take action, through the child’s friends or neighbours, for example, asking them to tell the child to come and see the teacher. In some instances, the committee set up by the project in a school contacts the pupils’ parents directly. We also take advantage of the parents’ associations, who are well placed to convince other parents to keep sending their children to school.

Do the Moroccan authorities not take any action when a child stops attending school?

The Constitution guarantees a child’s right to education, but the laws that are supposed to ensure the application of this right are very weak. The government has never punished a parent for not sending a child to school. The government is surprised that there are over 600,000 children working in the informal economy, in agriculture, etc., but it knows full well that 1.4 million children do not attend school in Morocco; out of a population of 30 million, it’s terrible! There is no policy, no will to apply penalties, not even against employers exploiting children.

You spoke about a change in pedagogical approach, to be more attentive to the children. Is this possible when a teacher has been doing things a certain way for 25 years?

In some of our workshop discussions, mention is occasionally made of the fact that failure at school is in part owed to the physical and psychological violence used against children, such as caning. Some children hate school because of these beatings. Teachers’ aggressiveness is something that needs to be called into question; we need to change the approach to teaching in schools. We still have a long way to go before meeting this objective, but with the experience we have gained, we can get there. Teachers’ attitudes change a little when we speak to them about children’s rights. At the beginning of the project, when we would ask teachers what children’s rights were, they had no idea, as they had never learnt anything about this topic. Yet it has a major impact on teachers’ behaviour. I know a teacher who got rid of her cane and now deals with the more difficult pupils differently, after having taken part in our workshops on being attentive, for example, to shy children. So some teachers have changed, although not all.

Were all the SNE members enthusiastic about this project in the beginning?

We had to hold awareness raising workshops to explain that it was in the interests of the union and education in general to do this work, otherwise we would never have managed. Some members were instantly enthusiastic, but other said that it was not the main problem they were currently facing, that there were financial and administrative problems to solve and that we should fight to improve our own situation first, before taking on other struggles. We started with three voluntary teachers per school targeted by the project, but the numbers continued to go up and up in each establishment: the teachers see the school heads and other teachers getting involved, and that the project is producing results. At the Al Quods school, for example, the school dropout rate at primary level went from 18 in 2003 to six in 2009. At the 18 novembre school, the figure gradually fell from 160 in 2004 to 24 in 2007. The schools taking part in the project have also seen a rise in the number of enrolments.

How is the SNE benefitting from the project?

First of all, we, the union’s leaders, have learnt how to manage a project. We have started to use these project management techniques in the management of our union itself: setting up structures, understanding the role of a coordinator, the importance of communication, awareness raising and training in relation to meeting objectives. This is all very important for a trade union.

The union has also benefitted from the recruitment of new members, as the majority of the teachers in the schools targeted have become members of the SNE. Before, there were teachers who did not belong to a union and others who were members of such or such a union. They joined the SNE because they were convinced that our work has new human and trade union values.

Thanks to the success of the project in Fez, the Dutch union FNV decided to help us in four new regions (Meknes, Marrakech, El Jadida and Larache). We are going to be able to mobilise over 250 members in five regions. This strengthens the activism among our members.

We have also improved our image: our action against child labour is quoted at national and international level; we are the only union to have knocked at the government’s door to talk about child labour. I think the new prestige our union has gained will bring many benefits in the future, if we continue to head in the same direction.

Has the project had any impact on society at large, on adult workers?

It’s still too early to say. Our activities only commenced in 2004; we have not had the time to assess the impact on adult employment. If we continue like this, however, if we manage to raise consciousness among other segments of society (members of parliament, local politicians, labour inspectors, etc.), and rally them to the cause of combating child labour, there will be a positive impact on adult employment too. Adults will understand that if they are unemployed, it is because children deprived of an education are working in their stead. It takes time, but we have to emphasize the link between child labour and adult employment.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

Also read:

-  Union View no. 18, Child Labour: Enough! May 2010, which includes a report on this SNE project on page 7

-  Interview of Stavri Liko, federal secretary of FSASH (Trade Union Federation of Education and Science of Albania), regarding the project to combat child labour led by teachers’ unions in Albania

-  A recent FNV report on the links between child labour and decent work, which includes an assessment of the SNE’s action