Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Child Labour Tales Ruin Summer Fun

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  August 8 / 11

Zack Gross

Ah, summer!  As they say, we Manitobans live under six feet of snow for six months of the year, so we should be able to enjoy the “fruits” of this season, whether in the fresh fruit variety, or fun activities such as fireworks. 

Unfortunately, when you know the true story behind some of our summertime treats, you are not sure that you can enjoy them at all!

More and more, fireworks have become a staple of festivals, sports events and long weekend celebrations.  There are international competitions to determine which nation has the best display, and then there are just plain neighbourhood events that draw a crowd of kids of all ages.  News articles, however, tell us how fireworks are often manufactured by children in slave labour situations.

In China, numerous fireworks factory explosions have been documented over the past twenty years, with children aged between seven and fifteen killed or injured. 

One report is of a teacher who forced his young students to make fireworks in Hebei, while in Guilin, two men running a factory “employed” children after school to do the same.  In both cases, children were killed or injured, the perpetrators were prosecuted, but coverage was hushed up.

In Guatemala, where many families live in abject poverty, fireworks are often made as a home cottage industry, but this is no less dangerous.  Development organizations are trying to find safer work for these children and their parents, while ensuring that kids have the opportunity to go to school. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations has established certain standards pertaining to child labour.  These are based on age and type of work, as well as mandating the right of children to learn, a better long term plan for a better life. 

Thus, heavy, toxic and dangerous work is considered unacceptable for young children, and this includes making fireworks, mining and many agricultural activities.

We all love berries!  Our family went out to a U-Pick the other day and gathered in a couple of ice-cream pails of raspberries.  Wal-Mart recently publicly cut ties with a major blueberry operation in the US, when a television reporter discovered children as young as five picking the fruit and lugging large buckets of them to a waiting truck. 

An eleven year old boy at this Michigan location told the reporter he’d been working there since the age of eight.

As with fireworks, what employers are looking for are small hands to do fiddly work, like connecting string to braces of firecrackers or picking fruit.  While corporations and labour organizations pass regulations and warn industry, actual enforcement is very lax. 

A Human Rights Watch spokesperson says that even though Americans are concerned about child labour as a global issue, they are “unaware” that it is a reality in every US state.  Children are exposed not only to a long summer of backbreaking labour, but also to agrichemicals that affect them for life, with damage to their bodies and their ability to learn. 

Under US President Obama, the Department of Labour has become more active in fining agricultural companies that use child labourers, but the industry itself has spoken out to say that it can’t control it own members which number in the thousands. 

The average fine, which is US$1,100, is also seen as a slap on the wrist that doesn’t deter those breaking the law.

The global economic crisis has increased the instance of child labour by increasing pressure on families around the world.  At least two hundred million children are involved in industries that bring products to your home.  In food items, you can count coffee, sugar, rice and cocoa and chocolate products.  Much of your summer clothing, from t-shirts to footwear may be the product of child labour. 

The rattan rug on your deck, the sports ball you are kicking around the yard, the brick for your walkway or fire pit are other possibilities.  If you are attending or are yourself having a wedding this summer, the gold or silver in your ring may have been mined by a young boy or girl in a conflict zone.

Ultimately, if we knew the circumstances and origins of many of the items we eat or use, we might well not buy them!  So, it is up to us, when we shop at the grocery store, when we go clothes shopping, or even plan that fireworks display, to find out more about these products. 

While child labour is seemingly an overwhelming reality of production and trade, there are also alternatives available.  Environmentally friendly, ethically produced and fairly traded products are a growing option in the marketplace. 

Do your research, look for the certification labels and really enjoy summer!

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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