No one seems to have a solution to the scourge of child labor in a seaside resort.by Linas Jegelevicius 25 July 2012
PALANGA, Lithuania | The sun in Palanga, a resort known for its 20-kilometer (12.5-mile) strip of powdery beach on Lithuania’s Baltic Sea coast, has not been so scorching this summer. But the soles of 12-year-old Ignas’ feet look peeled off – reddish and, in several spots, bruised.
Ignas is one of the ubiquitous unchaperoned children, some as young as 10, who come to Palanga every summer from all over Lithuania to make money illegally selling chebureki – crescent-shaped, meat-filled dumplings.
He agrees to a quick interview about the “dumpling business” only on condition of payment – 10 litas, or about 3 euros. It’s a quick calculation, based on how much he could make in a few minutes selling the chebureki instead of talking to a reporter.
Roaming the beach takes a toll on his feet, he says. “If you walk back and forth just four or five hours a day, it’s like having your soles scrubbed with sandpaper. And when the sun is shining, it’s even worse. When the soles are sweating, they’re even more sensitive to the grinding.”
He says he’s tried walking on the beach in his athletic shoes, but he only got sand in his shoes and blisters on his feet.
Ignas claims to be schoolboy from a rural town in the Panevezys region, more than 200 kilometers from Palanga, but it’s common for these young food vendors to go by fake names and to concoct life stories.
Like most chebureki sellers, Ignas says he gets 50 Lithuanian cents (14 euro cents) per dumpling sold. That’s one-eighth to one-sixth of the 3- to 4-litas purchase price. The older boys who sell beer get up to 2 litas of the 5- or 6-litas price per can.
Ignas sits slumped on a bench, hugging a cooler next to him. He says it can hold up to 200 dumplings. The goal each day – which he rarely meets – is to sell them all.
The foot pain is nothing compared with the constant fear of being busted by local police, or by “ladies” from the municipal Child Protection Service.
“I’m a rookie seller on the beach. I don’t know the people who may be after me someday,” Ignas says worriedly. Wrapped up in the 12-year-old’s fear is that he will run afoul of the man who hired him if he gets taken in by the authorities.
“I really don’t want to piss off my boss. I need my job,” he says.
Although the coolers are much heavier when they’re filled with beer, Ignas says would like to sell it instead of chebureki, since it pays better.
“The boss said I was too young to sell beer. He thinks older boys can better deal with the attacks by aggressive teenagers, who sometimes try to snatch our beer cans or don’t pay for them when given,” the boy says.
Suddenly he jumps up, hoists his 20-kilogram-plus cooler, and hunches while trying to put it on his back. He gives a high-five and scurries down the beach, which is crowded with sunbathers.
“Delicious, fresh home-made chebureki!” he shouts loudly. “You want some bliss, ladies? Get my chebureki. They’re anti-cellulite!”
‘OFFICIALS DO NOTHING’
Ignas may be an innocent, but he and dozens of other illegal beach sellers pose a big problem for Palanga.
Gintautas Pocevicius, a division chief at the Palanga Police Department, says most of the chebureki sellers are too young to work legally and are hired off the books. “The law gets brushed aside a lot when it comes to the chebureki kids,” he says.
“They have no IDs, use fake names, and, most importantly, violate the municipality’s regulations on mobile and stationary trade on the beach,” Pocevicius says. Still, he says, “Chebureki selling is not the biggest transgression. Kids selling alcohol on the beach is.”
According to a Palanga Council ordinance, only licensed vendors in stationary stands can conduct commercial activities, including chebureki selling, on the beach. Some paid up to 10,000 euros ($12,000) for licenses this year.
Legal beach vendors sometimes resort to force to shoo away the illegal competition.
A businessman who operates several pavilions on the beach says the chebureki kids “take away a big chunk of my business every day, and the officials do nothing about it.”
He and some other legitimate beach vendors considered hiring a security company this year to clear out the illegitimate vendors, but the cost was prohibitive, says the vendor, who wished to remain anonymous.
“Now on the beach I’m like a watchdog on constant lookout for those nasty chebureki kids. After I hit one entering my pavilion’s territory a few weeks ago, the word spread and so far the others have stayed away,” the vendor says.
Local police are generally sympathetic to the plight of the chebureki sellers. One officer who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity says he has been on several beach raids against chebureki children, but each time he felt “very disheartened.”
“They’re usually good kids,” the officer says, who come to the resort to earn some money for the school year or to help support their families. “A lot of them get cheated by their shady employers. They’re exploited. Instead of chasing them, the state and the municipality should find ways to make employers hire children legally.”
He says police were relieved when the duty of supervising commercial beach activities was transferred recently from them to the municipality’s Public Order Department.
That department’s director, Petras Kenys, is a former police officer. He is clearly irked by a reporter’s questions about enforcing the law on chebureki kids.
“Jesus, they’re only kids! Some only 12 years old,” he exclaims in a telephone interview. “And so many law enforcers, along with the media, are ready to chase them down the beach! Frankly, I feel ashamed to go after children. They don’t bother me as much as their criminal bosses, who cause a big headache.”
As for going after those bosses, Kenys says many are in “hideouts,” operating the chebureki business through secondary businesses. “It’s hard to untangle the web,” he says.
Before hanging up, Kenys asks, “You want me to handcuff the kids?”
None of which makes Kenys’ boss, Palanga Mayor Sarunas Vaitkus, very happy.
“What he’s saying is crap!” the mayor asserts. “What kind of webs and hideouts is he talking about?”
Vaitkus says the big crime bosses are not so elusive. He recounts sidling up to a couple of chebureki sellers one day and asking how business was. They said they were having an excellent day – each had made 100 litas (nearly 30 euros), having sold 200 dumplings each.
“I pretended to be a newcomer businessman in the resort who wanted to start his own chebureki business, so I asked them the name and cell phone number of their boss. And they gave it to me kindly. So let the department head do what he’s supposed to do,” Vaitkus says.
Last year, five bosses were fined amounts ranging from 300 to 500 litas, a fraction of the 4,000 to 6,000 litas they can make from chebureki sales on a good day. So far this year, two bosses have been fined. Six chebureki sellers have been taken in and released this year; last year the number was 18.
“Obviously the fine-and-raid system doesn't work,” says Darius Misevicius, a veterinary and food inspector in Palanga, who called the financial penalties “ridiculously low.”
Most of the chebureki kids live in cramped garden cottages and sheds, often without sanitation or electricity, on the outskirts of the resort.
“Well, indeed, it’s an open secret,” says Emilija Lapeniene, director of the child-protection office. “But do you expect us to go there and scoop them up? That’s not the way to tackle the problem.”
Bronius Martinkus, deputy director of Palanga municipality's administration, says officials can apprehend only children 16 or older, which leaves out most chebureki sellers. “You can't expect us to handcuff 10-year-olds," he says.
And, he adds, there is little point in bringing in most of the youngsters. “Since most of the children don't carry any ID, we have to let them go after the database check shows that the child doesn't resemble a child in the missing children lists.”
As for tackling the problem of underage chebureki sellers, he says simply that Public Order Department is working on it, and it will take time.