In the United States, child labor and sweatshops are illegal, and society frowns upon any business that exploits children in the production of goods. Though most would say that they would not support a company that uses child labor to produce its goods, almost everyone has, in fact, knowingly or unknowingly, supported these businesses in one way or another. Children are involved in the production of many of the everyday goods we import from overseas, including the manufacturing of clothes, shoes, toys, and sporting equipment, the farming of cocoa, cotton, sugarcane, and bananas, and the mining of coal, diamonds, and gold (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). Often, we are blinded to this fact.
Child Labor is defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as “a form of work that is inherently hazardous, employs children below the internationally recognized minimum age, or is exploitive” (U. S. Lib. of Congress). The ILO estimates that approximately 250,000,000 children between the ages of five and fifteen work, and 120,000,000 work full time (Bachman 30). Children comprise 22% of the total workforce in Asia, 32% in Africa, 17% in Latin America, and 1% in the United States, Canada, and other wealthy nations (“Child Labor”).
Merriam-Webster Dictionary broadly describes a sweatshop as “a shop or factory where workers work long hours, at low wages and under unhealthy conditions”. Such sweatshops, primarily manufacturing clothing and shoes, employ less than 5% of child labor worldwide, but this segment of child labor receives “a disproportionate amount of press and world attention (Bachman 38). Children are treated as mere cogs in the wheel of the global economy. They perform the greatest amount of work in the production process for the least benefit.
They suffer physical, mental, and emotional anguish and forego their futures for minimal and sometimes no pay (Darity 23). Poverty drives child labor. Impoverished families in underdeveloped and developing countries turn to child labor, in desperation, because the little money it brings is vital to the survival of the family (24, Maki). Employers take advantage of these families to get cheap labor, which is never is short supply. The U. S. Department of Labor (USDOL) has made large strides in its attempts to end the cruelty of child labor.
The USDOL, joined by other international organizations and agencies and global economists, have emphasized the critical importance of presenting poor families and children with economic opportunities and incentives that can free them from having to rely on child labor for survival. Education, health and social programs, improved employment opportunities for parents, improved working conditions, and improved technology are the means to end dangerous child labor practices (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). Moral outrage is not enough.
Clearly moral outrage exists, but for many employers, the money continues to flow, and there is no disincentive to end such exploitive practices. Oftentimes, children in these countries need to work. The survival of their families depends on it. The working conditions these children are forced to endure, however, must be improved and steps need to be taken to eliminate family dependency on child labor in these countries. Though great strides have been made, there is still more work that needs to be done.
Stakeholder 1: Department of Labor The United States Department of Labor is taking many proactive measures to end the abusive cycle of international child labor. Its Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) leads the Department’s efforts to “ensure that workers around the world are treated fairly and are able to share in the benefits of the global economy (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). ILAB’s mission is to …improve working conditions, raise living standards, protect workers’ ability to exercise their rights, and address the workplace exploitation of children and other vulnerable populations” (The U. S. Dept. of Labor).
The ILAB primarily focuses on areas with high concentrations of child labor and funds projects to promote educational opportunities for children and better employment opportunities for parents, works with organizations and governments to improve working conditions and eliminate child labor, and conducts research and collects and analyzes data to improve knowledge about child labor practices around the world and to make policy recommendations (The U. S. Dept. of Labor).
To target child labor and other abusive labor relationships, the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (OCFT) was created in 1993, as part of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB). Its initial focuses primarily were to gather information and increase knowledge of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking practices worldwide and to promote international cooperation to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor”, defined as slavery (or practices similar to slavery), the sale or rafficking of children, debt bondage or serfdom, the forcible recruitment of children for armed conflict, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the involvement of children in drug trafficking, and the involvement of children in work that is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). As international and domestic concern over child labor grew, the efforts and the activities of the OCFT also expanded, with increasing emphasis on child labor issues.
The OCFT currently conducts research to identify specific goods from specific countries that are produced (or highly suspected of being produced) with child labor. These goods are placed on a Department of Labor list and any federal contractors importing these products must first certify that they have made a “good faith effort” to determine that the specific products they import were not made with the use of child or indentured labor (The U. S. Dept. of Labor).
This list currently includes carpets from Nepal and Pakistan, garments from Argentina, India, and Thailand, and toys from China. Any goods found to be made with child or indentured labor are banned. The OCFT also researches and investigates economic, social, and political issues that affect child labor, actively works to develop new methods and strategies to end child labor practices and eliminate abusive employers, and funds programs to accomplish these goals (The U. S. Dept. of Labor).
Extensive research by the Department of Labor sheds light on the plight of children involved in child labor. In addition to the global economic downturn, countries continue to face economic, political, and social crises that drive children out of school and into the exploitive labor force. Shortages of basic needs, including food, high rates of inflation, low wages, and high unemployment cripple families, who are often left with no alternative but to allow their children to work to ensure the family’s survival (The U. S. Dept. of Labor).
Political instability, in many countries, resulting from unrest, civil war, and violence continues to destroy economic stability, and institutions like schools and hospitals are neglected, making the future even bleaker for many families. Illness and disease outbreaks afflict many of these poor families, and lack of adequate medical care and lack of money to seek medical care often result in poor outcomes and death.
Children, many times, are forced to work because of the illness or death of one or both of their parents. Educational opportunities for many children in these countries is too expensive, inadequate, or not available at all (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). All of these factors contribute to the increase and continuance of abusive child labor practices, and children are left with little choice but to work, and accept little pay and harsh working conditions, to escape such economic, political, and social problems.
Worldwide, many children, as young as five years old, are forced to work in marketplaces, hotels and restaurants, workshops/sweatshops, farms, and mines, under abusive working conditions for little to no pay. They are often forced to carry heavy loads, trash-pick, perform dangerous tasks, and work such long hours that they are prone to sustain injuries because of fatigue, some children even dying. They are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and are involvement in illegal activities, including drug trafficking and prostitution (The U. S. Dept of Labor, “Child Labour”).
Girls are also forced to provide domestic work in third-party homes, where they are treated like slaves and likely sexually exploited and/or abused. The U. S. Department of Labor has funded programs to reduce or end child labor in 75 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and through its efforts, 1. 3 million children have been withdrawn from or prevented from entering the child labor market since the 1990’s (The U. S. Dept. of Labor). The successes of the Department’s global realization efforts provide reason for optimism.
Stakeholder 2: Employees/Families Tragically, sweatshops and workshops represent some of the best employment opportunities for children in many developing countries. Children not given the opportunity to work in sweatshops and workshops often are forced to accept employment in much more dangerous working environments, particularly in agriculture and mining, where loss of limbs, illness from hazardous chemicals and materials, and death are not uncommon occurrences (Bachman 32).
In sweatshops, children are forced to endure long working hours, as long as 12-18 hours a day, hazardous working conditions that include lack of ventilation and air-conditioning, lack of adequate water, sanitary bathrooms, use of toxic chemicals and glues without safety gloves or other equipment, exposure to dangerous machinery, without the use of safety equipment, lack of appropriate rest to prevent accidents, and verbal, physical, and sometimes even sexual abuse by their employers, all for little to no pay (Maquila). “It was like a prison, we were locked inside.
We worked from 5 a. m. until midnight making carpets and we slept among the machines. ” – Kumar, child laborer ((“Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse”). Working in sweatshops not only damages children physically, but damages their physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual growth. Though some might argue that work may introduce children to responsibility and maturity, any benefit is outweighed by the damage done to children and their futures (“Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse”).
Despite the deplorable conditions they are forced to suffer, children are unlikely to complain and to stand up against their employers, who exert absolute power over them (Maquila). They are grateful for the jobs in the sweatshops they have, and the fact that they are not forced to work in much more dangerous industries (“Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse”). Thus, many conditions do not change. Their vulnerable position not only denies them basic working rights and adequate wages, but denies them a future.
What makes families willing to subject their children to such harsh conditions to work in sweatshops? To answer this question, one must look at the issue of child labor through the eyes of the children and the families themselves, not through an American lens. In the normal lives of families with adequate, steady income, parents go to work each day to provide for their children, and children go to school and play with friends. Children do not go to work, suffer abusive working conditions, and bring home little to no pay (Bachman 36).
From an American perspective, child labor is catastrophic, ruins the lives of children, is immoral, and should be abolished. Families in developing countries often do not share this view. A family is a cohesive unit, and sometimes it is necessary for some members to make sacrifices so that the family can survive. (Edmonds). Even children feel this sense of responsibility to the family. One boy from Bangladesh states, “I could go to school, but then who would feed my mother and sister? And who would send my sister to school? (Bachman 38).
In developing countries, child labor is primarily a factor of intense poverty. The less income a family makes, the more likely they are to involve their children in child labor. In those countries where the average annual income falls below $1,500, approximately 30% children work (Edmonds). Parents are forced to make the difficult decision to send their children to work to ensure the income security and survival of their families. Without the meager earnings their children receive from working in sweatshops, families are faced with heart-wrenching decisions, including who will eat.
It is not uncommon for parents to consciously decide to send one child to work so that another child will have the opportunity to go to school, when school is an available choice (Edmonds). Even in areas that have adequate, “free” education, families are required to pay certain education expenses, which poverty-stricken families simply cannot afford (Free the Children). So even in cases where there are adequate educational facilities available, poverty-stricken children do not always have the opportunity to get an education.
Their lack of access to education prevents them from escaping their poverty-stricken lives and their futures as adult, low wage-earners in sweatshops. Some children are involved in a particular employment arrangement known as “bonded child labor” (“Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse”). In some cases, a family is so impoverished that the parents are forced to use a child as collateral for a loan, so they can receive money to help the family survive.
In other cases, a child inherits a debt that was previously carried by his or her parents. The child is surrendered to the employer until the loan or debt is satisfied. In most cases, however, interest charges and expenses to care for the child are consistently added to the debt, and the repayment of the debt becomes out of reach for the parents. The child then becomes the property of the debt collector, and the child’s future is to suffer a life of servitude (“Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation, and Abuse”).
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