Experienced porters are hard to find these days. They have either left the profession in search of other prospects abroad or have moved on to become trekking guides. Young inexperienced boys have taken over and has become an issue for both trekking agencies and tourists alike.
I have witnessed kids as young as 14 years carrying loads up to 30 kgs (66 lbs) on the trails! I find it amusing that everyone lies about their age and have been trained to say, “I’m 18 years old”. They seem to be totally OK with it. In fact, they seem happy because they’re making Rs. 1000 (approx. $11) a day at such a tender age. That’s almost twice the minimum wage here. Most of them have stopped going to school and questions about future aspirations draws a blank stare.
What’s more appalling is that most of these young porters have no knowledge of the risks associated with high altitude. They lack proper clothing, equipment and footwear. However, they do not complain about anything because of fear of losing their jobs. They will scramble through rough terrain, spend on food scarcely, and sleep in cramped spaces; all for the money. Even though the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) have defined some guidelines, they’re not strictly enforced on the trails.
On the flip side, these kids are used to carrying loads because they help their family with the chores. You also see a lot of underage boys carrying firewood, gallons of water and other household items. So, where do we draw the line? Is it OK for kids to carry a load if it’s for the family? Is it only NOT OK if they are doing it for others and getting paid for it?
I carry my own luggage on all my treks. Personally, I feel like people should hire porters only if absolutely necessary, for example, during camping trips to carry all the extra food and equipment. Also, opt for homestays/ teahouses for accommodation in well established trails. Not only does this minimize traffic in the mountains, it also creates less room for underage children to enter the “porter industry”. It might not be the “be all, end all” solution but worth something.
Truth is, child labor is prevalent in all industries and barely frowned upon in Nepal. The porter industry just happens to be one of them. It raises eyebrows elsewhere but not here. In a situation like this, how do we encourage kids to stay in school and discourage employers from hiring them?