We were in an atelier where they made mosaic tables and other articles.
Young boys were fashioning bricks and putting them into wood-burning kilns stretching their arms deep into the fiery furnace. Their arms bore the scars of burns and other accidents.
Other boys sat on the ground hunched over bricks using chisels and hammers to break them into tiny squares to be used in the mosaic patterns.
Their long hours of tedious difficult work were evidenced by thin bodies with knees and shins cut, scraped and thickly calloused.
By this time in my travels and career, I had seen and witnessed multiple forms of child labor.
Something struck me this time that seemed strange: Why were these boys not in school? A better question yet, why had I not asked this question before?
The atelier assured us that we could have a table shipped to us anywhere in the world. We were also assured that the price of a few thousand dollars was a bargain.
I wondered how much of that money made its way to the pockets of these child laborers. Why had I never wondered before?
Fast forward a few years. A major U.S. company was in trouble for the way they were sourcing fabric. Child and exploited labor was in their supply chain. I took to social media to call them out.
My son, who was living in West Africa at the time, asked me to be careful. For some of these children, this work was the only way their family would have money to buy food to eat that month. How to solve this conundrum?
What is child labor? What is human trafficking? What is exploitation?
Child labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), states the age for admission to employment should not be less than age 15, or 14 for developing countries.
Human trafficking, as defined by the United Nations, is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by force, abduction, fraud or coercion for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation.
Millions of children around the world without their consent are used for purposes of labor. They are abused, have limited to no access to education, live under brutal conditions and are not free to leave.
Many more children below the age set by the ILO are in need of work in order to help their families survive.
They, their families or both seek employment opportunities accepting well below fair wages. While this is exploitation, it does not fit the definition of human trafficking.
The ILO estimated in 2016 that approximately 152 million children between 5 and 17 were engaged in child labor.
Of these, approximately 73 million were in hazardous labor. The U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs estimates about 143 different goods are produced by child and forced labor in 76 different countries.
Forced labor of children includes but is not limited to armed conflict, domestic help, manufacturing, fishing industries, forced begging, to name but a few.
Not here in the U.S., we think.
An expose by the Washington Post revealed that 452 children died on the job in the U.S. between 2003 and 2016.
The agricultural industry is most notorious for the use of child labor in the U.S. but that does not exclude other industries, such as construction, manufacturing, hospitality, recreation and so on.
Back to the conundrum. What to do?
- Educate yourself regarding the industries that employ child labor and trafficked labor. EndSlaveryNow.org has some simple but thorough explanations about some of these industries as a help to get started.
- Choose one product to buy exploitation free. I chose coffee as my first product because I am an avid coffee consumer. Maybe chocolate is a favorite? Or is there a brand of clothing that you particularly favor?
- Learn what fair trade means. This webinar recorded in 2014 explains the basics. When you buy fair trade, you are not necessarily saying that children will not work, but guidelines will be followed. There is fair compensation, access to education is granted, and it is exploitation free with a healthy living environment.
- Ask your church or community to buy exploitation free T-shirts for their activities and to buy fair trade coffee for events.
- Have a watch party with a group of friends for the documentary, “Not My Life,” or another documentary regarding child labor. Invite an anti-trafficking activist to join you and lead discussion after the film.
We will not be able to be 100% certain that every purchase we make is child exploitation or trafficking free.
But we can begin to make a difference by showing companies contributing to the problem that we will use our buying power and buy with a purpose: freedom for children to grow and learn and become thriving adults.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series for the U.N. World Day Against Child Labor (June 12).