The next time you shop around, I hope you realize that the garden stone, the handmade carpet or the silk scarf available in your favorite store was probably made by child labor. I hope you’ll spare a thought for twelve year old Ramesh who works at a silk factory in Northern part of India.
Everyday, he has to put his hands in boiling water to remove the thread from the silkworms and although silk is expensive in the international market, Ramesh himself makes about $1 per day. That’s not all, at the end of the day his hands are red and blistered due to the inhumane nature of his work. But Ramesh is not alone. There are millions of children like him – 158 million according to UNICEF. They are everywhere but invisible, toiling as domestic servants in homes, laboring behind the walls of workshops, hidden from view in plantations. Children work in mines, in agriculture sector with chemicals and pesticides and with dangerous machinery. The sectors that employ children are often informal without legal or regulatory protection. The International Labor Organization(ILO) estimates that 22,000 children die in work related accidents each year.
Child labor is prevalent across the world and no country is immune: There are 2.5 million working children in the developed economies, and another 2.5 million in transition economies. In Sub-Saharan Africa around one in three children are engaged in child labor, representing 69 million children while there are another 44 million working children in South Asia. Apart from this, as estimated 8.4 million children are trapped in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities (source: UNICEF).
Child labor is one of the biggest consequence of poverty and illiteracy across the world. For the poor children, attending school competes with a whole host of other demands on their time and energy like contributing to family income, taking care of younger siblings and doing domestic chores. And then there are times when the children have no other option. Families trade their child with an employer for money (sometimes as little as U.S. $15) and children remain as slaves for rest of their lives.
Most countries today have laws in place that ban child labor and slavery. However, such laws have many loopholes and are often poorly implemented. In India for example, the law prohibits children under 14 from working in factories, slaughterhouses or other dangerous locations but there are some exceptions for farm work–if the hours are limited, the kids are in school and there are no machines to be operated. But children often put in ten-hour days in the fields and miss school. The Indian government itself, in its most recent account (from a 2001 census), estimates that 12.6 million children under the age of 14 are at work in India. But non-profits that work with these children put the number much higher – 50 million. The situation is far worse in war torn Africa and other parts of Asia like Bangladesh and Myanmar where majority of the population is below the poverty line.
An attitudinal shift is needed to eradicate child labor. Every child has a right to education and safe childhood. Every child has a right to dream and we can make that a reality. What we need to do is remind the governments about the promises made and support every endeavor made for the fulfillment of those promises. We should resolve not to employ children or purchase products made by children. We just need to be willing to help those that never get the same opportunities as ourselves – all we need to do is care. It is an important commitment that we all have to make to break this intergenerational cycle of poverty. The change should start within each one of us. And should end only when all children are free to be children.
There are many creative and simple ways in which you can participate in the fight against child labor and other issues that plague our world. We can all make this world a better place for everyone.