America's history of curbing child labor in the 20th century
points the way to a solution for a rising global problem.
Yesterday millions of American children opened gifts left under
Christmas trees. Sadly, many of those trees were decorated with
ornaments produced by involuntary child labor.
Just this month, an advocacy network, the Global March Against
Child Labor, led a surprise raid of a sweatshop in New Delhi.
Fourteen children, ages 8 to 14, were rescued. They were working in
small, unventilated spaces for up to 15 hours a day, forced, under
the constant threat of violence, to make Christmas decorations and
seasonal gifts to be sold in America and Europe.
These were just 14 children of the six million who, according to
the United Nations, are trafficked into labor under the threat of
physical harm or physical restraint each year. Forced labor is part
of an even bigger problem: Recent estimates indicate that there are
215 million laborers under the age of 18 worldwide, over half of
whom are working in hazardous conditions. The U.S. Department of
Labor publishes a "list of goods produced by child labor or forced
labor," which mentions 134 goods -- including decorations, clothing,
electronics, shoes, jewelry, fashion accessories and toys --
produced in 74 countries.
During the holiday season, heightened consumer demand in the West
for these goods leads to a shortage of labor. To cope with this,
teenagers and children are often recruited or, as in the New Delhi
case, trafficked into forced labor. Poor parents are often tricked
into selling their children to middlemen for a few dollars, after
being told that their children will receive care and a free
education, and that their wages will be sent back to the family.
Last Christmas, an investigation of toy factories in China, where
85 percent of the toys on the American market are produced, revealed
that about 300 youth workers were drafted to help with the holiday
demand. Another undercover investigation of a Chinese factory last
year revealed that children as young as 14 were making Disney's best-
selling Cars toys in preparation for the 2011 holiday season.
The use of child labor has been rising around the world since the
financial crisis in 2008. A recent study by the risk-assessment
company Maplecroft revealed that manufacturing supply chains in 76
countries were at "extreme risk" of involving child labor at some
stage, up from 68 countries last year. Among these countries are key
American trading partners: China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and the
Philippines. Bangladesh, where a recent garment factory fire killed
112 workers, is also a major offender. Many of the dead were young
women, some as young as 12.
America's own history of addressing domestic child labor in the
early 20th century points the way to a global solution to the
problem. Just as today, toys and trinkets then were often made by
poor children in factories and tenements -- but in America itself.
In 1912, Lewis Hine photographed New York City tenement children
sewing dolls and displayed the images alongside photographs of
middle-class children playing with the same dolls in Central Park.
The photographs prompted the state legislature the next year to
prohibit the making of dolls and children's clothing, among other
items, in tenement houses. …