Where Children Work: Child Servitude in the Global Economy

Article excerpt

FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Santosh spoke in a low, almost inaudible voice. His head hung limp and he showed little expression. But at least he was able to speak--showing a remarkable improvement in the six months since he had been rescued from a carpet factory near Allahabad, India. The story he told needed no dramatic embellishments to convey its horror. One day when he was five, while playing with friends, some men drove into the village and asked the boys if they wanted to see a "video." Having heard of but never having seen such a thing, they all said yes and piled into the back of the vehicle. The men then drove to a city 400 kilometers away, where the boys were locked in a room for many days without food and beaten into submission. Only by working at a carpet loom did they receive food, and then barely enough to survive--bread, water and occasionally vegetables.

Santosh's captivity lasted nine years, during which time he never had contact with his family, never had a day off and was never paid one rupee for harsh, crippling work. Two of his village friends did not survive--one was shot while trying. to escape and the other died from some untreated illness. Finally, in the fall of 1993, Santosh was rescued by the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS); group led by Kailash Satyarthi, a charismatic former Brahmin. SACCS stormed into the loom-shed where Santosh was working and freed him and all the other children who were being kept in servitude. Unable to speak when rescued, Santosh was taken to an Ashram operated by SACCS where therapists, counselors and a family environment slowly unlocked his shuttered mind and enabled him to identify his family and home village and eventually be reunited with them.

When I met Santosh, he had joined Kailash and his band of child-rescuers on a 5,200-kilometer march from the southern tip of India to New Delhi to muster support in villages, towns and cities for an end to child servitude in India. Though still scarred, he was able to stand on makeshift platforms and tell his story. The marchers urged people to boycott products made by child labor and to work on persuading India's government to put resources into basic village education.

Santosh's experience was extreme but not unusual. In India alone, some 55 million children are at work rather than in school, many in situations of bondage and endangerment that leave them stunted, sickly and illiterate. Their work perpetuates family poverty. In South Asia, around 1 million of these children sit cramped at looms weaving lovely, hand-knotted carpets to sell in the U.S., Germany and other Western countries. Many millions more are born into families bonded by generations-old debt to rural landlords, for whom they work from the time they are old enough to go to the fields. Although outlawed, this pattern of debt bondage, or caste bondage, persists throughout the region because of lax enforcement and a climate of apathy and hopelessness. Others work with toxic glues to assemble shoes, toil in hellish glass factories, weave silk threads, pour molten brass into molds, or clean the poisonous barrels of leather-tanning fluids. Hundreds of thousands labor in brickyards, quarries and mines, bearing burdens far too heavy for their slender bodies, contracting silicosis, tuberculosis and other diseases. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that around 200 million children are engaged in work that is dangerous to their health, morals or development.

A year-long study by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1994 reported that millions of children are involved in producing or processing goods that are imported into the U.S. from Asia, Latin America and Africa. The study provides a chilling account of the extent of child servitude in the global economy.

OPPONENTS OF the Uruguay Round of the Generalized Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which the U.S. ratified in December, point out that the new agreement hampers countries from attempting to ban products made by child labor; in fact, a study by the Congressional Research Service concluded it would be "GATT-illegal" to bar products from the U. …