Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Halt Child Labour Now

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, April 6/08

Zack Gross

At least one in every six youngsters in the world — more than 200 million kids in
all — is a child labourer. The definition of child labour is young people under 12 years old engaged in any regular work, and those 12 to 14 year olds who work sufficient hours to undermine their health and education, and any children up
to 18 years old who are engaged in hazardous work.

Child labour is largely agricultural, but also includes domestic service and factory or workshop production.

One-quarter of African and one-fifth of Asian youngsters are child labourers. The International Labour Office (ILO) of the United Nations estimates that one per cent of children in the United States, Canada and Europe qualify as child labourers.

Half of the 218 million total works in what is described as the worst instances — in mining, construction and handling chemicals (fireworks, matches, glassware). At least another 10 million are coerced into being child prostitutes, soldiers or slaves of various kinds.

Child labour comes in different forms, some seemingly less harmful than others. A young boy or girl may sell vegetables or fruit on the street in the morning to earn school fees and then be at school in the afternoons. But another child may sit in a dimly lit shack, threading carpets or sports balls 10 hours per day with no hope of a better life, and then be discarded when their eyesight is too poor to continue.

Many children are victimized by bonded labour situations. Families receive an advance payment for their child being handed over to an employer. The amount is
sometimes very small, just a few dollars. The child is supposed to work off a debt but, as the employer claws back wages for living expenses and interest, they never do. In this way, bonded labour can often be multi-generational, as a family is forced to supply an employer with a new worker when the old one is no longer able to continue.

This predicament is the story of Iqbal Masih, whose rural Pakistani parents sold him into bondage to a carpet manufacturer for $200 in 1986, when he was four years old, because they couldn’t afford to raise him.

For six years he squatted, often chained, in front of a loom, 14 hours per day. His growth was stunted from lack of nutrition and his back was curved from lack of exercise and the position he had to hold all day. Tying thousands of knots every day, his hands were scarred and his fingers gnarled. The carpet dust he breathed in affected his lungs.

The Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) of Pakistan was founded in 1988 and freed 30,000 children, including Masih, when he was 10 years old. Masih became a spokesperson for BLLF and travelled the world to tell of his difficult life, and call for an end to child labour and a boycott of the Pakistani carpet industry. He befriended Craig Keilburger, known to Canadians as the founder of Free the Children, an organization that still works to bring an end to exploitative labour situations and ensure that children receive the health care and education needed to live productive lives.

Masih was awarded numerous honours and his boycott hurt the carpet industry,
but he was murdered in 1995.

Many governments, such as Pakistan’s, and many transnational corporations have continued to either not recognize the international conventions that have been brought forward to protect children or they have not enforced them.

In 2007, fashion chain Gap stopped selling children’s clothing made in India when the United Kingdom’s Observer newspaper photographed a 10-year-old boy making GAP clothes. The boy said he’d been in the shop for four months
without pay in relation to a debt his family owed. Another boy said the children were beaten if they didn’t work hard enough.

A similar instance occurred with Wal-Mart in November of 2005, causing it to cut ties with factories in Bangladesh.

It is an open question whether clothing purchased in many chain stores across
Canada, with the label indicating “Made In …” many Asian and Central American
countries is not sweatshop produced.

Transnationals have set up factories, called maquiladoras, away from the U.S. and other developed world regulators, where child labour, excessive hours, forced overtime, verbal and physical abuse, unsafe working conditions and discrimination are the rule.

While the UN and various manufacturers’ associations have created a variety of written conventions, implementing and maintaining these policies has been a mixed experience.

Save the Children, UNICEF, Free the Children and many other organizations have established programs not only to curb child labour, but also to support children through education, training and community social programs once they are out of the workforce.

Many churches, schools and other groups are supporting these efforts through donations, public education and boycotting products made in exploitative situations.

It is said that children are our most precious resource. It is time for all governments and companies to recognize that fact and take action against child labour.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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