Labor

Working children

Peter Lewis October 1 1979
Labor

Working children

Peter Lewis October 1 1979

Working children

Labor

Peter Lewis

When the police raided a ramshackle toy factory on the out-skirts of Bangkok, they saw a sight that made even a hardened officer such as Orachun Piromya blanch. “They stared at us from their workbenches, about 60 haggard children in a room so foul that you could hardly breathe,” the Thai policeman recalled. “Some had burlap bags for clothes and a few had actually been tied to the tables to keep them in place for the 16 hours they worked there every day. But as we led them away they all began to wail. A little girl of 10 told me they were crying

because we were closing down the factory and they would be out of work.”

On that same day, in the hills of Colombia, thousands of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were toiling in coal mines, wriggling into nooks and crannies to fetch scraps of coal lying beyond the reach of adults. In a 10-hour day, the luckiest would retrieve a bagful, and be paid seven pesos. The same bag would bring the mine owner 180 pesos.

The children of Bangkok and the tiny miners of Colombia are victims of what many people term the “last unmentionable disease of the century”—child labor. Like an estimated 55 million other youngsters in the world in 1979, the International Year of the Child, they are exploited by adults in ways that range from the ferocious to the passable for financial gain. And, being children, they can’t fight back.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva has just published a scorching report on child labor, outlining the how, where and why in fuller detail than ever before. The paper shows that out of the 55 million children under the age of 15 known to be working

at present, some 53.5 million live in the developing world.

The report aims to “shame the world into taking notice of a matter everybody prefers to ignore,” says ILO spokesman Peter Suttcliffe. “Child labor is a taboo subject because nobody likes to think about youngsters suffering, and we have no easy solutions to offer,” he maintains. “But we also keep our mouths shut out of deference to the sensibilities of countries which thrive in part on the sweat of their children.” Suttcliffe’s latter accusation is backed up by such widely respected bodies as

the Anti-Slavery Society in London and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels (ICFTU).

“South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia have grown reasonably affluent from the sale of products assembled by little girls and boys who sit on assembly lines performing the same movement 10,000 times a day for a pittance,” says Ada Camuselle of the ICFTU. “Your government could protest by banning the import of these goods but it won’t, for fear of crippling the Third World economy or offending nations we like to consider as bastions of the free world.”

Union distaste for child labor goes beyond purely moral considerations. “The scourge is not only harmful for what it does to children but because it denies adults work in a period of high unemployment throughout the world,” says Camuselle. “If children stopped working, there would be work for every jobless man.” Yet there is little chance of anyone putting a halt to child labor. Apart from being profitable to governments, bosses, parents and even the children themselves in many instances, such toil is far too embedded in eco-

nomic and cultural tradition to be abolished at the snap of a humanitarian finger.

The fact is that exploitation of children comes naturally to many societies. Some 80 per cent of the world’s child laborers toil in farming, cottage industries and family-type ventures where conditions, though hard, are by no means unbearable. Overworked and deprived of proper schooling, the children nevertheless earn food, protection and pin money from their employers while learning a trade.

In its report the ILO calls upon governments to prevent children from taking dangerous jobs and doing night work and to urge employers to limit work hours and improve lighting and ventilation in workshops.

While such advice may conceivably improve the lot of the 80 per cent of working children who come under some form of government supervision, it is hard to see how they can help the remaining 20 per cent, the hapless 10 million whose plight falls within the confines of slavery. These are the children of Bangkok and Colombia, as well as the 28,000 youngsters found working this summer in match factories in Sivakasi near Madras, India, some of whom were five years old. And they are also the little girls in northeastern Brazil who are sold into bondage to procurers for $80, to spend their lives in brothels, or to families who subject them to wrenching household chores, 18-hour days and sexual abuse by the males.

“For these children you only pray,” said Leah Levin of the Anti-Slavery Society in a recent statement before a United Nations subcommittee on human rights. “You wonder why they

were born.”