THE IRONY OF CHILD LABOR

IRONY 1: Using my Samsung laptop, I just signed a petition to stop child labor at a factory in China that makes Samsung electronic products.

Had I known that the Huizhou company supplies Samsung with products, I would never have bought my laptop. I looked at the specifications of the computer, the screen size, and battery life but never thought about who made it.

China Labor Watch reports that at least seven children are working at this factory 11 hours a day, 26 to 28 days a month. Though they work the same number of hours as adults, they make only 70 percent of their pay. Working the night shift, one girl received a daily subsidy of a dollar. Apparently one 14 year-old girl was not taken to the hospital for treatment when she fell down the stairs, and when she had to take sick leave, the factory deducted 6 days of pay.

The petition I signed is in support of China Labor Watch’s request that no underage children work at Samsung supplier factories, that children who have worked be properly compensated and send to school, and that Samsung establish an independent hotline for workers to report labor violations.

What I’m wondering, as I look at other electronics companies and see similar, even worse scenarios, is if Samsung will end up making these changes. And will children’s lives actually improve outside factory walls?

In a startling New York Times article written by Eduardo Porter on March 8, 2012, Porter says that “some economists have concluded that Western campaigns might actually make child labor more difficult to eradicate: campaigns push children out of formal jobs into the informal economy, where they are less likely to compete with adults for jobs.”

For example, in Pakistan in 1997, “a program to stop children from stitching soccer balls misfired even though the program replaced some of families’ lost income and helped children enter school. Moving stitching from homes to centers that could be easily monitored made it more difficult for the mostly female work force to work. One report said family incomes dropped by 20 percent. And rising costs in Pakistan persuaded many customers to switch to cheaper machine-made balls from China.”

IRONY 2: My quest to shop ethically and fairly for items without child labor, without sweatshop conditions, could backfire, leaving more families living in poverty and even more children working.

Case in point—after the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the U.S. in 1992, approximately 50,000 children were released from jobs in Asia’s garment district. A UNICEF study in 1997, “State of the World’s Children” found that many of these former garment worker kids now worked as street hustlers or prostitutes, much “more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.”

In a 2005 article in the Christian Science Monitor, it’s written that “in Honduras, the site of the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 per day…, In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid by a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than double the average income in that country’s economy.”

While this information indicates that kids and adults are often better off staying in sweatshops, this is not an acceptable solution for me. How can we accept the lowest possible standards— poverty level wages— along with hazardous working conditions for children and adults? How can we accept a world where kids routinely are uneducated and have no future other than slave wages and conditions?

I understand that this was what life was like for the first immigrants to the U.S., who toiled away in places like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. But this was not exactly a perfect situation, if we remember the March 25, 1911 fire at this factory that left 146 people dead. In fact, fires have continued to kill workers; the International Labor Rights Forum has done research showing that at least 1,000 garment workers have been killed and 3,000 injured in more than 275 unsafe factory incidents in Bangladesh since 1990.

IRONY 3: Christmas, a holiday meant for children, leaves many children in India practically enslaved in sweatshops that manufacture Christmas ornaments for the U.S. and other countries.

In an article published Dec. 21, 2012 on the Child Labor Coalition website, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, speaks about Indian children making these ornaments in a video. Brown talks about a rescue raid by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) which freed 14 of the child laborers—some as young as eight—from a sweatshop in Delhi. BBA, like the Child Labor Coalition is a member of the Global March Against Child Labor, an international umbrella group that works to reduce the worst forms of child labor.

“Children are being asked to work 17, 18, 19 hours a day,” said Brown. “They are being asked to work in unsanitary conditions. They are being asked to work without sunlight. Some of them are lacerated because they are working with glass. We found these children in this basement, they were not being paid, they had been trafficked…” Several children had been beaten by their crew leaders. The rescuers actually found 12 of the children imprisoned in a locked 6-foot by 6-foot cell.

While these children are free now, Brown says there are “tens of thousands of sweatshops around the world, where grossly underpaid workers, including many children, produce goods for us.

“The people I know in America who do not want to celebrate Christmas on the backs of the exploitation of these young children would be appalled if they knew that these decorations and trinkets and gifts and presents were coming because children had been violently kept prisoner to make these goods.” The UNESCO Institute for Statistics states that 61 million children around the world of primary age do not attend school—often because they work instead. “That’s an unacceptable thing for 2012,” said Brown.

Even more disturbing is the U.S. Department of Labor’s annual report which found that 134 goods are still produced by forced labor and child labor in 74 countries.

Clearly we need to find a way to get children out of factories, without having to resort to prostitution or begging. It’s sort of like trying to solve a Rubix Cube; as soon as you get one side perfectly done, you see that the other sides are more messed up than ever. With child labor, as soon as we manage to get children out of factories, other problems arise making the situation more complicated. But we can’t give up and we can’t accept child labor as a better solution than prostitution.

It’s so easy to buy something without thinking about where and how it’s made. It’s so easy to look the other way.

 

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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