When he was four years old, Iqbal Masih was sold into bonded servitude by his parents, a common practice of poor Pakistani families hoping to pay off debts owed to landlords and local merchants. For the next six years, Masih was forced to work in a carpet factory—usually chained to a loom—for up to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. A small, sickly boy, Masih’s growth was further stunted by malnutrition, carpet dust, constant stooping, and beatings he received as punishment for his repeated escape attempts and occasional refusal to work. At the age of ten, however, Masih saw posters distributed by the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), a human rights organization founded by labor activist Ehsan Khan. These posters revealed that bonded and child labor were illegal in Pakistan—a fact generally ignored by the local manufacturers and civil officials. Masih secretly contacted BLLF members, who helped him escape from the carpet factory. Soon afterwards, Masih joined the BLLF and worked with them to liberate 3,000 bonded children from textile, brick, and steel factories in Pakistan.
Under the tutelage of Ehsan Khan, Masih became a spokesman for the bonded children of south Asia, and he traveled to the United States and Europe to persuade potential buyers to stop purchasing Pakistani carpets until the country enforced its child labor laws. In 1992, as a result of Masih’s efforts, Pakistan’s carpet sales fell for the first time in twenty years. The boy’s success gained international attention, and in 1994, he won the Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award and a future scholarship to an American university. In 1995, however, twelve-year-old Masih was shot to death while visiting relatives in a rural village. Khan maintains that Masih was assassinated by the “carpet mafia”—members of the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association who were eager to keep child laborers in their factories.
Iqbal Masih’s life and violent death have inspired many organizations, consumer groups, businesses, and individuals to contest the use of child labor. Canadian Craig Kielburger was twelve when he learned of Iqbal’s story and began researching the issue of working children. In an article printed in the December 15, 1996, Chicago Tribune, Kielburger states that before reading about Masih, “I did not know very much about where my running shoes or soccer balls were made, or who made them. . . . Poor children in many countries are employed in the textile, sporting goods and toy industries, making products that may eventually end up on the shelves of North American stores. By buying these products, we may be contributing to the exploitation of children.” With a group of friends, Kielburger launched Free the Children, an organization that urges consumers to learn about the origin and assembly of goods and to buy child-labor-free products. Kielburger has taken personally funded tours of factories in several Asian countries to investigate the working conditions of child laborers, and Free the Children has initiated letter-writing campaigns and petitions urging businesses and governments to eliminate the use of child labor.
Many advocates for children argue that efforts such as Kielburger’s are desperately needed because most child laborers work under abusive and horrific conditions. These workers often toil for twelve to eighteen hours a day in congested, dusty, dangerous environments that severely impair their health, activists contend. Some child laborers, advocates point out, face verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse from their bosses. Since most of them do not obtain an education, child workers cannot attain higherpaying jobs as adults and stay trapped in poverty all of their lives, activists maintain. According to the International Labour Organization, a workers’ rights alliance, there are at least 250 million workers between the ages of five and fourteen in third world countries. This number may be as high as 500 million—half of the children in the developing world—if undeclared workers and domestic workers are included. For these reasons, asserts Kielburger, “we . . . have to push for education, protection, and the rights of the child.”
In addition to Kielburger’s Free the Children campaign, concerned parties have taken several other measures in an attempt to stop the exploitation of child labor. In 1992, Democratic senator Tom Harkin first introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act, a congressional bill that proposes a ban on the importation of products made by children overseas. Harkin argues that this legislation endeavors “to stop the economic exploitation of children and to get them out of the most dangerous jobs . . . by limiting the role of the U.S. in providing an open market for foreign goods made by underage kids.” As of November 1998, Harkin’s legislation had not passed. However, some North American locales—such as Bangor, Maine, and North Olmsted, Ohio—have instituted their own voluntary boycotts by passing ordinances prohibiting the purchase of goods made by sweatshop and child labor. Moreover, several companies, including Levi Strauss, Guess, and The Gap, have recently adopted a “No Sweat” policy that ensures that their stores do not carry products made by suppliers that exploit children or adult workers.
Other activists have taken a different route by implementing labeling programs that ensure that a specific product has been made without the use of child labor. Child advocate Kailash Satyarthi, for example, established Rugmark, a nonprofit foundation that allows consumers to identify hand-knotted rugs made only by adult labor. Rugmark inspects factories that wish to be certified as child-labor free and attaches special Rugmark labels to carpets that meet their requirements. Through these kinds of actions, many human rights activists hope to stop the abuse and exploitation of child laborers. “To do less with the knowledge that we have today on the extent of this problem is to be a coexploiter of children,” insists California state representative George Miller.
Some activists caution, however, that humanitarian challenges to the use of child labor can backfire. For example, 50,000 Bangladeshi children garment workers lost their jobs in 1994 after news of Harkin’s Child Labor Deterrence bill aired. Many of these children then took on the more dangerous work of stone crushing or prostitution to make ends meet. According to Bangladeshi writer and activist Shahidul Alam, children factory workers in third world countries contribute needed income to their house- holds, and if these children are forced to leave their jobs they must choose between a life of increased poverty or a life of more exploitative, and often illegal, work. “Childhood [in Bangladesh] is seen as a period for learning employable skills,” writes Alam. “Children have always helped out with family duties. When this evolves into a paid job . . . neither children nor their families see it as anything unusual. In poor families it is simply understood that everyone has to work.” Alam contends that the complexity of the child labor issue must be reexamined if human rights activists truly want to improve the lives of working children.
To avoid scenarios such as the one in Bangladesh, many activist organizations do not support the boycott of goods made by children. Instead, they demand safe and humane working conditions for children along with a serious examination of the socioeconomic conditions that require young children to work. At the first international conference of child laborers held in 1996 in Kundapur, India, child delegates from thirty-three developing countries drafted a ten-point proposal that rejected the tactic of boycotts and called for “work with dignity, with hours adapted so that we have time for education and leisure.” They also requested opportunities for professional training, access to good health care, and more actions that would address “the root causes of our situation, primarily poverty.”
While human rights activists may disagree about the best approaches to ending the exploitation of working children, some analysts contend that Westerners should maintain a “hands off” stance toward child labor in the developing world. For one thing, critics argue, labeling programs such as Rugmark’s are probably futile. Rugmark uses only eighteen inspectors to examine more than eighteen thousand looms, and, in the opinion of Columbia University professor Elliott Schrage, “Without a video camera on every loom in every home where rugs are made, there’s no way you can know if children were involved.” Moreover, critics point out, inspectors could simply be bribed to lie about the use of child labor. Instead of trying to force overseas manufacturers to abide by seemingly more enlightened labor standards, argues economist Murray Weidenbaum, Western consumers should recognize that the use of child labor and low-wage workers is a natural stage in the industrial development of poor nations. As nations become more economically successful, Weidenbaum contends, they generally abandon exploitative labor practices. Such was the case for many national economies of the twentieth century, he points out: “Japan moved from poverty to wealth, as did South Korea in the last half of the twentieth century. . . . Nations in Southeast Asia are undergoing a similar transformation. In each of these cases, rising portions of the population advanced to better paying jobs—not as a result of idealism but from changing economic circumstances.”
Concerns about the use of child labor and sweatshops are likely to increase as corporate power continues to expand into multinational domains and as a growing number of companies come to rely on outside manufacturers. Child laborers, of course, are not the only ones who are exploited. Adult workers in many third world countries—and even in the United States—face long hours, menial pay, and hazardous working conditions. The authors in At Issue: Child Labor and Sweatshops examine the issues surrounding the use of child laborers and adult workers who are exposed to substandard work environments.