Most of us would be horrified to support a business that exploits children. But chances are you may have done just that on your last shopping trip.
Perhaps you splurged on a hand-crafted carpet, without knowing it was made by a seven-year old from India, where children are chained to looms for 12 hours a day. Maybe you just bought a soccer ball for your son or daughter, without realizing five-year-old hands inside a dark and silent factory in Pakistan produced your gift. Even your more mundane purchases – a leather bag, a shirt, a pair of jeans, or produce from the local grocery store – could be the product of child labor.
Around the world today, some 250 million boys and girls between the ages of five and 14 are exploited in hazardous working conditions, according to the International Labor Organization. Children’s rights groups estimate that the US imports more than $100 million in goods each year which are produced by bonded and indentured children. This is outrageous.
The issue of the exploitation of child labor is not only a moral issue, but also an economic issue that is having a profound impact on US workers. As consumers, we should not be purchasing products made by children who are held in virtual slavery – children who can’t go to school, who work horrendous hours each week, who are beaten when they perform poorly on the job, and who are often permanently maimed when they attempt to escape from their slavery.
But, equally important, we should not continue a trade policy that forces US workers to compete against desperate and impoverished people in countries such as China and Mexico, people who earn as little as 15 or 20 cents an hour – whether those workers are children or adults.
I have been working hard in the Congress to end the scourge of abusive and exploitative child labor for a number of years. Most recently, I was able to include $300,000 in this year’s Omnibus Appropriations bill to develop a model educational curriculum addressing child labor issues in Vermont. This funding will go specifically to the School for International Training (SIT) and Brattleboro Union High School. This grant is a solid step in beginning to educate our young people about the moral and economic horrors of the exploitation of child labor.
For too long, the world has looked the other way as hundreds of millions of children have been virtually enslaved in the pursuit of greater profit. Now, however, Vermont has a unique opportunity to pioneer a curriculum that exposes this problem to our young people so that they will be able to combat it. Through an effective program, we can start to show the next generation of leaders how pervasive this problem is and what we can do to prevent it.
A lot of work is going to have to be done by SIT, Brattleboro Union High School, and other educators in order to determine the most effective use of this important grant. My personal hope is that, at the end of the day, we will have involved large numbers of students throughout the state in this project, and will have done an effective job in teaching them how to play an active role in our democracy. It’s a good first step, and if we are successful in Vermont, we will provide a model for students throughout the country to develop similar programs.
Another important initiative, signed into law in 1997, was the Sanders-Harkin Indentured Child Labor Import Ban, prohibiting the importation into the US of products made by indentured child servants. As documented by 60 Minutes II back in December, the US Customs Service used this law to stem the flow of hand-rolled, unfiltered cigarettes (known as "bidis") produced by indentured child labor in India. In India alone, there are approximately 50 million children working in factories or fields for little or no pay.
Bidis are an especially insidious product. They are made by children in India, and purchased by children in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of US adolescents between seventh and 12th grade have tried them. These cigarettes are popular among US youth because they are sweetened with flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, licorice, mango, and even bubble gum, giving the impression that bidis are less dangerous than other cigarettes. To the contrary, bidis contain higher levels of nicotine and five times more tar than regular cigarettes. I will be working with the Customs Service to keep bidis out of the US.
While the US is increasing its commitment to ending abusive and exploitative child labor around the world, today, in our own country, the richest most powerful country in the world, instances of child labor are growing. The estimated number of children between ages 12 and 17 who work is 5.5 million, or 27 percent of the total number of children in this age group, according to the Global March Against Child Labor. To this figure must be added the many children under the age of 12 illegally employed in various activities – for example, in urban garment manufacturing sweatshops, as street traders, and as seasonal and migrant workers on large farms.
The practice of exploiting children in the US workplace saves employers $155 million in wages. That’s why I am co-sponsoring the Young American Workers’ Bill of Rights, introduced by Rep. Tom Lantos from California. This bill brings our child labor laws up to date and calls for increased minimum and maximum penalties for child labor violators.
If you don’t think that child labor is a problem in New England, guess again. In January, the Labor Department fined Toys R Us $200,000 for violating child labor laws. The violations involved 14- and 15-year-olds who stock shelves, operate cash registers, and clean at 19 New England Toys R Us stores, most of them in Massachusetts.
We know how bonded child workers are bought and sold like cattle. We know about the horrendous working conditions that they are forced to endure. We know about the violence that meets them when they cannot work hard enough to satisfy their masters, or when they try to escape their slavery. As we begin the 21st century, we must make a firm commitment to eradicate child labor throughout the world.
Bernard Sanders is Vermont’s five-term congressman, and the only Independent in the US House of Representatives.