Child vendors a sign of those left behind

M.P. Faumuina Tiatia Liuga's remembrances of his childhood days as a street vendor during Thursday’s session of Parliament were strikingly honest and raised an issue too often ignored: young Samoans’ limited economic opportunities. 

There is much about the speech made by the Member of Parliament for Palauli-Le-Falefa with which we disagree.

But we commend Faumuina for a contribution to the public debate that was unusual for its candour and raising some unpalatable truths.

Faumuina recalled fondly many aspects of time in his youth spent as a street hawker. 

"The reason why these street vendors and school dropouts are important to me is because it is the life I grew up in," he said. 

"I grew up trying to help my parents, our family. This meant seeking, in other areas, for my [transportation] fare.

"There is a belief that this [hawking] is why children are not in school, but selling goods is practical training for life.

"I test these kids when I see them; [I ask] what class are you in? When they say they are no longer in school, I ask what grade they stopped going to school, they say year six and I ask them to do the multiplications of six and they do it.”

We would respectfully submit that the M.P. runs the risk of romanticising a life of hardship to which we believe no young Samoan should be subjected. 

Every child, in our view, has an inherent human right to a complete education.

There are lessons and insights into human nature, no doubt, to be learned on the streets, some of which might even be as edifying or useful as those in the classroom. 

But no child is capable of judging for themselves about where their educational potential starts or ends. 

Nor should they be encouraged to choose a life with no defined career path or educational foundations for the sake of a few years' income in their youth. 

Not every child is suited for professional work, that is true. 

But every child does brim with potential that can only be unlocked by a complete education; it is our duty as a society to provide them with it. 

There was, however, value in Faumuina’s words.

He reminded us that dignity is something that must be afforded to people at every station in life.

Only a select few of those on the streets will be able to lift themselves into the Legislative Assembly, or other high status careers, as Faumuina himself has.

But those who do not, or lack a formal education, are no less likely to be intelligent than those who do. 

As profoundly as we disagree with his end conclusion about the limited value of formal education, Faumuina’s words are particularly timely.

Recently, Samoa’s formal employment sector has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 20 per cent of employed people have lost their jobs. 

On the reckoning of some of the region’s finest economists, it could take years before our economy returns to pre-crisis levels. 

That has pushed an ever-increasing number of people into other means of making income. 

For some, this means subsistence living.

But walking through Apia it is evident that this also means eking out a living on the streets. 

Worryingly, children’s vending in the town centre appear to have taken on an organised quality; on its face, seemingly lone vendors often appear part of networks. 

The romantic view of Faumuina’s youth as vending as a means of hustling one’s own way out of poverty appears, increasingly, to be a thing of the past. 

There is more than casual observation to back up these conclusions. 

The U.S. Department of Labour in 2019 produced a report that outlined the cold realities of the life of a street vendor, or as they are better known a “child labourer”. 

“Children in Samoa are engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including in commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking. Children also perform dangerous tasks in street vending,” states the report. 

“Children who are street vending may work late at night, are exposed to exhaust fumes, and have an increased risk of being hit by passing traffic.”

The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor does have some checks against child labour, such as street sweeps and the offer of school subsidies for vulnerable families. But as the American Government’s report noted, there were obvious gaps in the ability for anti-vending laws to be enforced.

An afternoon stroll provides all the evidence needed to support this conclusion. 

Even before the impact of the pandemic, the signs that the younger members of our potential workforce were listless and short on opportunities were clear.

A statistics bureau report found that the number of young people who were listed as unemployed had nearly doubled between 2012 and 2017, from 16.4 per cent to 31.9 per cent.

This coincided, of course, with a jump in the rate of school dropouts. 

By 2018 the number of children who were not progressing from primary to secondary school had reached nearly 15 per cent. 

The number of children who do not go on to complete their studies is even higher, nearly one-third of male students and more than one-quarter of females not making Year 13. 

Students are dropping out for all the reasons one might expect: the unaffordability of school fees; the need to support family members and the inaccessibility of education. 

The Government is trying to address these rising rates of school dropouts with a plan to condense the final stage of schooling from five years into four. 

But Faumuina’s reminiscences highlight the root causes of the number of Samoan children who are falling through the education cracks in increasing numbers. 

Overlaid with the economic hardships and disappearing opportunities caused by the pandemic and its uncertain period, the question rises: what are we doing for those being left behind?

The streets provide no answer. 

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