Child Labor

The Hearing room in the Senate Office Building had plenty of empty seats. At the press table that day (September 19, 1994) there were no reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. After all, the Hearing, chaired by Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) only dealt with the exploitation and horrors of between 100 and 200 million children in labor servitude around the world, many of them manufacturing products exported to the U.S. and Europe.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) issued a statement about his proposed legislation to ban the importation of products to the United States made with child labor (under the age of 15). He described children “working in factories, in industries such as glass, metalworks, textiles, mining and fireworks, at the age of six or seven. They are poor, malnourished and often work sixty or seventy hours a week with little or no pay.”

“These kids should be in school each day, not in factories throughout the world. They should be holding dolls, not looms and other tools. Children everywhere should have the right to learn to read and write before they learn to sew fringes on carpets or how to pack gunpowder into fireworks.”

Senator Harkin was speaking to the converted in that hearing room. The business culprits who abuse these children, who import these products to great profit into the markets of the western world, were not there.

The day before, called the International Day of Children Working in Servitude, a conference was held in Washington sponsored by the National Consumers League where vivid and shocking testimony was heard by child-savers from India and other nations. Still no national press coverage. Many of these media firms were getting ready for the O.J. Simpson trial.

At the conference, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) announced operation RUGMARK which is a label affixed to carpets from India, Pakistan and Nepal assuring consumers the product is made free of child labor. By the end of this year, shoppers will be able to choose their carpets in part by this new label — a prospect that has sent shockwaves through the firms in those countries that use little children as bondage labor.

The large Swedish retailer, IDEA, recently declared not to carry carpets unless they can be certified as free of child labor. The CLC urges consumers to question other retailers about their buying policies from abroad.

Many of these countries in Asia, Africa and South America have laws banning most child labor under 15 or under 14 years of age. The laws are largely unenforced. Yet there are informal groups of child-protection groups and some sensitive or child labor-free businesses that are trying to have these laws enforced by exposing in the press the ghastly cruelties imposed on their “child slaves”, as one conference speaker called them.

Kailash Satyarthi, the head of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, attended both the conference and the Senate hearing. One of his most telling points is that with expanding manufacturing in these third world countries and with growing urbanization of dispossessed rural families, the abuses of child servitude are growing.

Desperate parents see no alternative other than to place their children in such bondage. Children, who are orphaned, are kidnapped or purchased from their caretakers and put into factories and mines under indescribable working conditions -­fumes, dust, noise, vermin, beatings.

Satyarthi knows of these situations firsthand. He walks the Indian towns and villages to see and to expose and to correct. Unfortunately, the heroic commitment of this young man does not fit the personal profile standards of the Washington media. He, therefore, came and went unnoticed by the wider public.

Similarly unnoticed was a remarkably specific, country by country report on child labor issued on the day of the conference by the U.S. Department of Labor. It was titled “By the Sweat and Toil of Children: the Use of Child Labor in American Imports” — a sobering description of the commercialization of children in bondage or in virtual slavery to the detriment of their schooling, health and often their life.

Interested readers may write the U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. for a copy. You’ll find out what most of the media ignored that September week in Washington.

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