This blog post looks at the situation of working teenagers (age 14-17) in rural Uganda and how the Government could improve their living and employment conditions.
It is midday on a Wednesday. I am implementing a household survey in the Bukwo village in eastern Uganda. During my research I meet Myra, a 17-year-old girl. She is in a garden of cabbages, spraying pesticides. At this time of the day and week, Myra should be in high school studying. But she dropped out of school two years ago and now works as an occasional farm labourer. Her case is one of many teenagers in Uganda. She exemplifies how the country has still a long way to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8, which seeks to ensure full and productive employment and decent work for all.
Uganda was among the first countries to integrate the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development into its national planning frameworks. The country has demonstrated commitment in addressing the challenge of youth unemployment by starting and funding programmes targeting the youth. While youth employment initiatives are commendable, most of them target special interest groups of youth aged 18-35 years.
This excludes an important group of young persons, the ones aged 14 -17 years. Some are out of school and have reached the legal age to work in Uganda (14 years). The exclusion of the 14-17 year olds is essentially attributed to certain inconsistencies in the existing government policies and strategies. For instance, while Uganda’s Employment Act of 2006 allows the employment of persons aged between 14 and 64 years, it defines all those under the age of 18 years as children. In addition, the Contracts Act of 2010 states that “only a person of 16 years or above is allowed to contract”. Due to these inconsistencies in definitions and policy provisions, a number of out-of-school young persons aged 14 to 17 years are often excluded from most interventions. They end up unemployed, working unprotected or in dangerous activities.
Schooling status of young persons (14-17 years)
Many teenagers drop out of school before graduating. Although young persons aged 14-17 years are largely perceived to be in school, 19%, a considerable percentage, prematurely leave school and join the workforce ill-prepared.
There are a number of reasons why young persons drop out or fail to attend school. The most common motive is the lack of school fees and scholastic materials. Many parents/guardians cannot afford to pay for their children’s non-tuition school requirements, such as uniforms, books and meals. There are Government programmes to subsidise the cost of schooling, particularly the universal primary education [UPE], universal secondary education [USE] and universal post ordinary level training [UPOLET]). But even that is not enough.
According to Uganda’s 2013 School-to-Work Transition Survey (SWTS), 83% out-of-school rural young persons left school before completing primary seven. This means that they lack specialized skills that are required in the formal job market. Hence, they have very limited chances of getting formal lucrative employment.
Finding decent work after dropping out of school
According to the 2013 SWTS conducted in Uganda, over 96% of the out-of-school young persons in rural areas are engaged in agriculture, mostly as contributing family workers. The remaining 4% work for a pay (1% are self-employed, while 3% are paid employees). The young persons who are paid employees earn meagre wages. On average, the monthly pay is 16 US$ for boys and 13 US$ for girls. This clearly shows that out-of-school young persons are failing to find decent work.
Moreover, young persons engaged in agriculture face key challenges. Among them: defaults and delays in wage payments, longer working hours, subjection to inhuman work, non-provision of legally enforceable job contracts and lack of protective gear. According to the 2013 SWTS, only 6% of boys aged 15-17 are provided with protective gear at their work places. Sexual abuse from employers is rampant. Most out-of-school young persons in rural areas working for pay do not receive non-wage benefits. They do not receive transport and meal allowances, paid annual and sick leave, a pension, end of service payment, and overtime pay or medical insurance coverage. Overall, the employment situation of out-of-school young persons (14-17 years) is characterised by low pay and hard working conditions.
What can the Government do?
- The Government of Uganda should ensure that children who are in school remain there until they have successfully completed their studies. This can be achieved through provision of the requisite non-tuition requirements, such as meals. Development partners should complement the Government’s efforts by funding interventions, such as school-for-food and cash transfers. These have elsewhere proved to be successful in keeping poor children in school.
- The Government should support the out-of-school young persons to acquire specialized skills by enrolling them in vocational training institutions. Together with development partners and the private sector, it should establish a Business, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) institute in each district.
- The Government should harmonise the Employment Act of 2006, the Contracts Act of 2010 and other relevant policy frameworks to fully accommodate the 14-17 year olds.
- The Government should enforce the relevant Acts and Conventions, in particular the UN Convention on the rights of the child. This convention provides for the protection of children from work that exposes them to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, underground work, dangerous heights and dangerous machines.
- The Government should fast track implementation of strategic interventions for increasing agricultural productivity. This would aid the movement of excess labour force to upper nodes of agricultural value chains, which pay better and are more attractive to young persons.
Achieving SDG 8
It is clear that young people who prematurely leave school and join the workforce ill prepared, face many challenges in Uganda. While the Government is funding initiatives for employment creation, most of them focus on youth aged 18-35 years. But the initiatives need to include the out-of-school 14-17 year olds, as they are legally allowed to work. For Uganda to achieve its commitment of the 2030 Agenda and in particular SDG 8, it needs to pay closer attention to this age group.
About the author: Mildred Barungi is a Research Fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) in Uganda. She holds a PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics. Mildred has been involved in undertaking policy-oriented research in various fields including education, agriculture, water and health.