Have you recently purchased a soccer ball? Something embroidered? Something made from cotton? Chocolate? Clothes? Produce? If so, there’s a good chance you’ve purchased something made from child labor. Child labor and slavery are so entrenched in the production of goods and services from so many countries, that it can be an enormous challenge to avoid it.
It’s estimated that more than 200 million children around the world are engaged in child labor, and almost half of those (ages 5-17) are involved in some sort of hazardous or dangerous work. Child labor has existed in some form for thousands of years. But, as our population has grown, as poverty has risen, as economic globalization has spread, the exploitation, oppression and violation of children has increased. As the editors of Child Labor: A Global Perspective mention, “Poverty is the major precipitating factor, but education, rigid social and cultural roles, economic greed, family size, geography, and global economics all contribute.” (1)
Part of the issue is that there is no clear, global definition of child labor. Is it all work that a child does? Only work that is oppressive or exploitative? Does working with your family count? How young is too young to work? One book, Living as a Child Laborer, made this distinction:
Child Work is “work that does not interfere in any way with the development of children or their education.” (5) Child Labor is “work that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous and harmful to children or interferes with their education. It is work, therefore, that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity.” (5)
The International Labor Organization defines child labor as work that:
- is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by:
- depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
- obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
- requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.
As the ILO says:
“In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. Whether or not particular forms of ‘work’ can be called ‘child labour’ depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries.”
Some people also argue that definitions of “child” and “labor” often have developed from a Western perspective that doesn’t reflect the views of other cultures.
Regardless of the blurriness of definitions, most countries have some laws that limit the amount and types of work children can do. But, that doesn’t mean that they are acknowledged or enforced.
What kind of “work” are children engaged in that could be considered child labor? Weaving rugs, making bricks, farming, taking apart toxic electronics, selling, cooking, diving for fish, or serving as child prostitutes, domestic workers, child soldiers, etc. There’s no end to the list.
World Day Against Child Labor is June 12. Here are a few tips for helping end child labor:
- Educate yourself. Use resources such as those suggested here and here, and then share what you learn with friends, family, co-workers and others, and work together to increase your “voting” power.
- Contact retail stores, manufacturers and importers and kindly ask them questions about the origins of their products. Let them know you want to buy products that don’t involve child labor, and give them suggestions for ethical products and services they can offer instead.
- Buy fair trade and sweatshop-free products whenever possible. Buy used when you can’t. Or borrow, share, trade, make it yourself, etc. Look for certified fair trade labels such as Fair Trade Certified, the Fairtrade Mark, and the Goodweave label to ensure that you’re supporting positive practices that don’t involve child labor.
- Grow more of your own food. Buy from farmers markets (verify their labor practices first), Community Supported Agriculture and U-Pick farms.
- Forgo that daily latte or expensive make-up or go out to eat a bit less and funnel that money toward supporting reputable groups that are helping free children from exploitative labor and helping them get a good education. Volunteer your time when you can.
- Contact local, regional and national legislators and ask them to pass laws that ensure no products in your city/state/country are made with child labor, and encourage them to adopt “codes of conduct” which include concern for humane, sustainable, just practices.
- Contact businesses that do business in countries that have child labor and encourage them to put pressure on government officials to take appropriate action and on businesses that use child labor to use sustainable, fair-trade practices.
- If you’re a shareholder, use your voice to ensure that your companies support humane, sustainable, just practices that don’t include child labor.
- Write letters to the heads of countries that permit any form of child slavery and ask them to strengthen and enforce their laws, and to increase educational opportunities for children and humane, sustainable business opportunities for adults.
- Give presentations to schools, communities of faith, nonprofits and other groups to educate them about child labor issues and encourage positive action.
Stopping such insidious practices isn’t easy, but there are choices that all of us can make to improve conditions for children, to reduce our contribution to child labor, and to facilitate an end to the oppression and exploitation of children.
Image courtesy of Free the Children.
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