Children Sewn Into Labor and Labeled as 'Powerless to Change Their Fate'
June 10, 2016
Many people adorn their bodies or rooms in their homes with different types of textiles. Textiles are chosen to express how someone may feel inside or how they want others to perceive them or their living spaces. Individual textiles are combined to create an aesthetic feel within a room or to create a garment, which may be associated with a good memory or sentiment, such as a wedding dress. However, the stories and memories started long before that garment, rug, or other textile made its way into our hands. Sometimes, the story is not a pleasant one. Perhaps, if you could look into the face of the child who was forced into work to create that product, you may feel differently about your decision to buy it.
“I felt nothing. I was nothing,” says Binod, a thirteen-year-old boy who was forced to work in a rug factory for fifteen hours per day tying knots.  "There was so much pressure. The designs were so hard to learn. Tying so many knots hurts so bad. We had to wash the blood off the rugs. We never stopped bleeding,” he said. Id.
There are three major characteristics that describe the work environments where Binod and many other young children are forced to work—long hours, low pay, and unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. These environments are often referred to as sweatshops. The United States Department of Labor (hereinafter USDOL) defines a sweatshop as a factory that violates two or more labor laws. The labor laws fall within seven major categories. They include wages and hours worked; safety and health standards; health benefits, retirement standards, and workers’ compensation; other workplace standards; work authorization for non-United States citizens; federal contracts: working conditions; and federal contracts: equal opportunity in employment. Id.
The families of these young children often force their children at a young age to work and forgo their education to help support the family. However, the children’s families are not the only ones who seek to benefit from forced child labor. Sweatshops benefit from the employment of children because they rarely complain about the working conditions, and they will accept a smaller wage. Additionally, rug and carpet factories, similar to the one where Binod worked, prefer children because of their small and fast hands. Id. Unfortunately, rug and carpet manufacturers are not the only employers who prefer children. The fashion industry is another that is widely known for its use of sweatshops and child labor. Some examples of major clothing companies that allegedly use sweatshop labor to make their products include: Nike, H&M, Wal-Mart, The Gap, Victoria Secret, Disney, and Sears.  For example, just a few years ago, a source revealed that Victoria Secret’s lingerie was made by cotton that was picked by children working in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. Id.
In addition to rugs, carpets, garments, and cotton; brick, cocoa, and coffee are other products that commonly come from sweatshops as defined by the USDOL. For example, six countries produce cocoa with exploitive labor, and of those six, two countries use forced child labor for its production. Id. They include Côte d’lvoire, a West African country, and Nigeria, a federal constitutional republic also in West Africa. Id. Additionally, there are nine countries that produce garments with exploitive labor and four of those nine use forced child labor. Id. They include Argentina, India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Id. In addition to cocoa and garments, there are eighteen countries that produce cotton with exploitive labor, and five of those countries use forced child labor. Id. They include Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Seventeen countries produce bricks with exploitive labor, specifically six of those seventeen use forced child labor. Id. They include Afghanistan, Burma, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Id. Finally, there are fourteen countries that produce coffee with exploitive labor, and only one of those fourteen countries, Côte d’lvoire, uses forced child labor. Id.
In developing countries, 168 million children are involved in child labor, working instead of learning.  Overall, twenty-six different countries use forced child labor to produce a variety of products. Five countries, including Burma, China, Congo, India, and Nepal; use forced child labor to produce four or more different products. Id. Statistics compiled by DoSomething.Org, International Labor Organization (hereinafter ILO), and the USDOL, show that forced child labor is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific. 
This article will discuss the lack of protection for children who are forced to work in unhealthy environments for long hours and for very little pay as well as what can be done to better protect these children, focusing specifically on Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the United States.
A. WHAT IS FORCED LABOR?
When examining child labor in sweatshops, it is important to distinguish between child labor and forced child labor. According to [ILO Convention 29], “forced or compulsory labor is ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.’” Id. Voluntariness “refers to the workers’ consent to enter into employment and their freedom to leave the employment at any time, with reasonable notice in accordance with national law or collective agreements.” Id. A worker can be in forced labor even if he or she has consented if that consent was obtained through the use of “force, abduction, fraud, deception or the abuse of power of or a position of vulnerability, or if the consent has been revoked.” Id. An example of a child giving consent to work may arise when a parent or family member uses his or her authority against the vulnerability of the child and asks the child to work to help support their family.
The ILO estimates that 10% of worldwide forced labor is state-imposed forced labor; however, this statistic includes “prison labor where victims are imprisoned without conviction by a court of law and made to perform work or service.” Today, 21 million children and adults are in forced labor, specifically 15 million adults and 6 million children. Id. Although this is less than 1% of the world’s close to 7 billion population, thousands of children die each year from child labor and miss out on the opportunity to learn to read and write as well as play with other children like a normal child would at their age.
A May 10, 2016 report from CBS News reiterated some of these statistics as well as benefits of manufacturers who hire children to work in sweatshops; however, the report focused on a highly publicized issue in recent news—Syrian refugees. Five million Syrians are on the run from their civil war and the UN estimates that more than 1 million are children. Id. A number of refugee children who have risked their lives to escape Syria now find themselves in Turkey where they are forced to work in sweatshops for a little more than 50¢ per hour. Id. A hidden CBS News camera captured children working inside of Istanbul textile factories. Id. Some children told CBS News that they were as young as eleven years old. Id. While a normal Turkish worker earns an estimated $450.00 per month, a Syrian child refugee working twelve hours per day earns only $160.00 per month. Id. That is close to a third of what normal Turkish workers earn. A psychologist who treats Syrian refugees and their families said, “You can overwork the children, and they are not going to be oppositional. Id. They are not going to ask for their rights. Id. They don’t know their rights, so they are just going to work like slaves, and it is easier to keep them as slaves than doing it to an adult.” Id. CBS describes these same children as “powerless to change their fate.” Id.
While some children, like the Syrian refugees in Turkey, are forced to work long hours with little pay in unhealthy working conditions due to their families’ poverty, others are born into slavery, trafficked into child labor, or “trapped in endless debt through fraudulent job recruitment schemes or unreasonable pay deductions.”
A Form of Forced Child Labor: Hazardous Child Labor
One form of forced child labor is called hazardous child labor. Eighty-five million children are involved in hazardous work, which is defined by Article 3 (d) of ILO Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999 (No. 182) as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.” Id. “Hazardous child labour is the largest category of the worst forms of child labour with an estimated  million children, aged five to seventeen, working in dangerous conditions in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, service industries, hotels, bars, restaurants, fast food establishments, and domestic service.” Id. It is estimated that 22,000 children are killed at work every year, but the number of children injured or made ill because of their work is unknown. Id. “Children’s inexperience and emotional immaturity results in their lower ability to recognize and assess potential risks and to make decisions about them.”
As far as the health aspect of hazardous child labor is concerned, there is “scarce evidence of the association between child [labor] and health.” Id. This lack of evidence is likely a result of a “lack of training of the health professionals to recognize children as working and the difficulties to establish the causal net, particularly for the outcomes with long latency period and the ones that are difficult to distinguish from non-occupational disease.” Id. While developed countries, like the United States, have studies available, many of these are based on secondary data sources such as worker’s compensation claims or emergency department records. Id. However, developmental characteristics of children, like higher percentage of water in their organs, tissues, and body as a whole and higher metabolic rate and oxygen consumption show that children’s absorption of chemicals, dust, and vapors and their ability to excrete are affected differently than adults. Id. Evidence shows that children are, therefore, “more susceptible to lead, silica, benzene, noise, thermal stress, and ionizing radiation.” Id.
2. Not All Forms of Child Labor Are Bad
While many children are involved in child labor, not all forms of child labor are frowned upon by the ILO. For example, a child’s participation in work that does not affect their health or personal development or interfere with their schooling is typically viewed as positive because such work may help contribute to the child’s development and to the welfare of their own families. Some work that is considered to be positive for children includes helping their parents at home, assisting in a family business, or earning pocket money outside of school hours and over the school holidays. Id.
B. CHILD LABOR AND ITS REGULATION WORLDWIDE
There is a UN agency that sets labor standards, develops policies and devises programs promoting decent work for all woman and men. It is known as ILO, which is comprised of 187 member countries, including the United States. It is “devoted to promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights.” Id. The organization was created in 1919, as a part of the Treaty of Versailles, and ratified by the United States in 1938. It “encourages tripartism within its constituents—employers, workers, and member countries, by promoting a social dialogue between trade unions and employers in formulating, and where appropriate, implementing national policy on social economic, and many other issues.” Id.
The ILO is made up of three main bodies, which are comprised of governments’, employers’, and workers’ representatives. Id. The main bodies include the International labour Conference, Governing body, and the International Labour Office. Id. Furthermore, tripartite committees that cover major industries as well as committees of experts on matters such as vocational training, management development, workers’ education, occupational safety, and several others assist the work within the Governing Body and the Office. Id.
In terms of legislation, the ILO has two core Conventions relating to child labor. They include Convention No. 138 on minimum age, which was adopted in 1973, and Convention No. 182 on the worst forms on child labour, which was adopted many years later in 1999. Id.
According to ILO, it has set international standards on child labor as well as on other fundamental principles and rights at work. Between 2000 and 2012, ILO reports that there has been a “decline of the number of children trapped in child labour from two hundred and 46 million to one hundred and 68 million. Id. More specifically, the most significant decline occurred between the years 2008 and 2012 when 47 million fewer children were involved in child labor, including 30 million fewer in its worst forms. Id. Alongside its global events, “the ILO has implemented a major country based programme of work implementing more than  projects aimed at tackling child labor through various interventions.” Id.
1. Sub-Saharan Africa: The Highest Rate of Child Labor
Although the total number of child laborers in the world has declined since 2000, Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the area of the continent of Africa that lies south of the Sahara desert, continues to be the region with the highest rate of child labor with more than one in five children in child labor and thirty percent of all five to seventeen year-olds in child labor. These children are employed against their will in stone quarries, farms, and mines, and over fifty-nine million children between the ages of five and seventeen are involved in what is considered to be hazardous work. Id. With that said, it is important to note that not all sweatshop environments are enclosed within a building or a factory.
According to the USDOL, during the reporting year of 2014, “governments in Sub-Saharan Africa made notable efforts to improve legal and policy frameworks related to child labor, increase the availability of data on worst forms of child labor, and improve coordination of government efforts to combat child labor.” Four countries—Côte d’lvoire, Madagascar, South Africa, and Uganda—“received an assessment of Significant Advancement for making meaningful efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” Id. Although the Democratic Republic of the Congo received an assessment of Moderate Advancements for its efforts, children continue to participate in dangerous forms of agriculture and domestic service. Id.
In 2014, several events—like the Ebola virus disease outbreak, terrorist activity, and civil conflict—caused disruption in African education systems. Although education disruption is detrimental to children because children who attend school are less vulnerable to child labor, several countries during that time decided to strengthen their legal frameworks to protect against trafficking in persons, recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, minors performing hazardous work, and the worst forms of child labor. Id. Several governments even made important efforts to increase access to education, which was a step in the right direction. Id. For example, “[t]he governments of Djibouti, Guinea, and Sierra Leone adopted education sector strategic plans to ensure that children have access to quality education.” Id. The government of the Republic of the Congo launched a program to improve access to education for the poorest Congolese children while the Central African Republic established a program to provide safe learning environments for children. Id.
While ILO launched an “online resource centre” for Africa to help keep track of labor issuing affecting children in specific African countries on a regular basis, this is clearly not enough. Id. The lack of progress in Sub-Saharan Africa can likely be attributed to African countries’ lack of National Action Plans (hereinafter NAPs), legislation, and policies. Id. Even though several governments within Sub-Saharan Africa took action against child labor and creating wider access to education, more than 35% of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have national policies to address child labor. Furthermore, national social protection polices and programs are only present in a little more than half of the countries in this region. Id. Not only is there a lack of legislation and policies directly concerning child labor, but there is also a lack of legislation and policies addressing education and physical and sexual violence within the schools in countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Id. As of 2014, eight countries did not have a required education age, and eleven countries have required education ages that fall below the minimum age for employment. Id. This creates a gap in which children are not required to be in school, but they are not legally permitted to work either. Id.
2. Asia and the Pacific
Children in the Asia and Pacific region significantly engage in agricultural forced child labor. Other forms of child labor include forced labor in the fishing and seafood industries in regions on the coast and island countries. Id. Furthermore, in Central and South Asia, children are forced to work in cotton cultivation and specifically, in South Asia, children are forced and bonded laborers (also known as debt laborers) in the textile and manufacturing industries. Id.
Similar to Sub-Saharan Africa, countries in Asia and the Pacific strengthened their legal frameworks to help protect children against child labor exploitation and improve children’s access to education; however, children in this region continue to engage in child labor. Id. In 2014, Afghanistan improved its laws regulating children’s work when it approved a list of twenty-nine hazardous jobs and working conditions prohibited to children. Id. Additionally, Thailand raised the minimum age for agricultural workers to fifteen and to eighteen for children working on sea fishing vessels. Id. While Afghanistan passed legislation prohibiting forms of human trafficking, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea passed legislation to improve the punishments in place for crimes that are committed against children, including the worst forms of child labor. Id. In addition to the progress made in legislation, several countries within Asia and the Pacific hired new personnel and conducted training for law enforcement officials. Id. The Philippines and Thailand received an assessment of Significant Advancement for making many meaningful efforts in these areas to eliminate forms of child labor. Id.
Efforts to improve access to education include Pakistan’s Balochistan provincial government enacting legislation that mandates free and compulsory education for children ages five to sixteen, governments in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Nepal funding and implementing formal and non-formal educational programs for children rescued from the worst forms of child labor, and Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal, and Thailand’s implementation of social programs aimed to increase access to education for children from marginalized groups who are especially vulnerable to labor exploitation. Id.
Although many countries within Asia and the Pacific have made strides in the right direction, there are still several countries that lack any progress. Id. “India, Norfolk Island, Pakistan, and Tonga have not established a minimum age for work.” Id. Similarly, India and Pakistan along with six oceanic countries and territories have not established a minimum age for hazardous labor, and one Nation Island and three island countries have not prohibited hazardous occupations and activities for children. Id. The majority of these areas are faced with a lack of sufficient funding and personnel to enforce laws. Id.
C. UNITED STATES LAWS ADDRESSING CHILD LABOR
Within the United States, the USDOL is the sole federal agency that is in charge of monitoring child labor and enforcing child labor laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act (hereinafter FLSA) restricts the employment and abuse of child workers and is “designed to protect the educational opportunities of youth and prohibit their employment in jobs that are detrimental to their health and safety.” Id. It is applicable to “[a]ll employees of certain enterprises having workers engaged in interstate commerce, producing goods for interstate commerce, or handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for such commerce by any person.” For everything else, state law is applicable and varies state by state.
In an effort to protect the youths’ interests, FLSA sets a minimum age of fourteen years old for non-hazardous employment and restricts the hours that children under the age of sixteen years old can work.. Additionally, FLSA prohibits minors under the age of eighteen years old to work in any occupation that it deems to be hazardous. Id. Some examples of these hazardous occupations include excavation, manufacturing explosives, mining, and operating different types of power-driven equipment. Id. However, certain industries permit minors who are under the age of 18 “to perform certain tasks at worksites whose primary work activity is dangerous, but these tasks are very specific and the state and federal government closely monitor compliance.” Id.
FLSA has established a different set of laws that apply to agricultural employment within the United States, which are more lenient with respect to child labor then the laws that apply to non-agricultural employment as discussed above. For example, while non-agricultural employment sets forth specific permitted maximum hours of work per day depending on the time of the year for a child under sixteen years old to work, agricultural employment simply sets forth a vague requirement that a child under the age of sixteen years old cannot work during school hours. Id. This leaves open the issue of whether a child may work for an agricultural employer for the full seven hours or more after school ends for the day.
According to the FLSA, a child who is ten or eleven years old may work an agriculture job that is deemed to be non-hazardous so long as there is parental consent and it is on a farm that is not covered by minimum wage requirements. Id. A child who is twelve to thirteen years old may be employed in agricultural work so long as they received parental consent. Id. A child who is fourteen to fifteen years old has no restrictions in place for non-hazardous agricultural employment, except that the work may not be during school hours. Id. To make matters worse, many agricultural employers are exempt from federal minimum wage requirements and all are exempt from overtime requirements under federal law. Id. “For agricultural employers who are not exempt from minimum wage laws, the same federal and youth minimum discussed in the non-agricultural section above would apply.” Id.
While the FLSA is in charge of creating federal legislation to restrict the employment and abuse of child workers, the Department’s Wage and Hour Division is in charge of enforcing FLSA’s child labor provisions in the United States. Id.
More recently, President Obama addressed the issue of child labor in February of 2016 when he signed into law a bill, The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, that ultimately amends the Tariff Act of 1930. Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio noted that the legislation in place prior to the new amendment had been around since 1930, which was even before the United States passed a law banning child labor. Although the “Tariff Act of 1930 barred imports into the United States that were made with slave, indenture, or convict labor,” there was an exception that permitted the importation of goods made with indentured or forced labor if the goods [were] not made in the United States in sufficient quantities to meet demand. President Obama’s amendment bans the importation of all goods made by children in forced labor. The amendment requires annual reports on the number of instances in which merchandise was denied entry to the United States, along with a description of the merchandise.
In addition to passing laws within the United States that ultimately have an effect on international forced child labor, an organization known as “[t]he Bureau of International Labor Affairs (hereinafter ILAB), leads the [USDOL’s] efforts to ensure that workers around the world are treated fairly and are able to share in the benefits of the global economy.” The ILAB is recognized for making significant advances in improving child labor in sweatshops around the world. For example, in February of 2016, the ILAB awarded the ILO $5 million to implement a forty-month project to reduce child labor and address hazardous working conditions in artisanal and small-scale mining worldwide. Id.
The ILAB is also involved with the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (hereinafter AGOA) “eligibility review process and funding of technical assistance programs to protect and improve workers’ rights in AGOA countries.” The USDOL works with Trade Representative, Department of State, and other U.S. Government agencies to implement the AGOA, which focuses in particular on the labor provisions of the Act authorizing “the President to designate countries as eligible to receive its benefits if they are determined to have established, or are making continual progress toward establishing the protection of internationally recognized worker rights and the elimination of certain child labor practices.”  Since 1999, ILAB has provided $291 million to support projects in forty-five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that aim to protect workers and reduce the worst forms of child labor. Id. Additionally, President Obama supports the Young African Leaders Initiative (hereinafter YALI), which provides funding to a project in Uganda, a country in Africa, to address exploitive child labor “by providing vulnerable [children] with education and vocational training . . . .” Id.
D. WORLDWIDE CRITIQUES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Although monetary and physical resources are typically scarce in regions that face the most problems with forced child labor, the little resources that they do have should be concentrated to address transparency, education, and enforcement, as further explained below, to help protect children.
Countries, Especially the United States, Should be More Transparent in Their Reporting of Forced Child Labor
Even though the United States has made continual progress to help the ILO and other countries fight against forced child labor, the fact that it took eighty-six years to amend the Tariff Act of 1930 shows that there is still more that needs to be done. Additionally, reports of every other member country, besides the United States, are available on the ILO website and ILAB mobile application. For example, on the ILO website, region reporting statistics of child labor exist for every other region of the world besides North America. Furthermore, the list of goods produced and displayed by the ILAB on its mobile application “intended to raise public awareness about child labor and forced labor around the world” does not contain a report from the United States. Therefore, one of my final critiques and recommendations for the United States is to be more transparent with its own reporting of child labor. The lack of United States child labor statistics available begs the question of whether the lack of reporting is directly correlated to an agreement made between the United States and the ILO in exchange for the millions of dollars regularly given by the United States.
Once the United States is transparent with its own reporting, the next step is to address problems directly within our country instead of placing a majority of United States money and time into focusing solely on addressing child labor issues in other countries.
2. Countries Should Dedicate Resources to Educating Children and Healthcare Professionals
Statistics show that uneducated children are especially vulnerable to child labor. Education should be available to these children worldwide. They should not only be taught how to read and write, but they should also be taught the laws that exist in their country regarding forced child labor. A primary piece of the puzzle for addressing problems in the juvenile law system is to educate young children so that they may better understand the system. Even if they are unable to understand, providing some education and a comfortable learning environment often allows the child to feel more relaxed asking questions. When children begin asking questions, sweatshop employers may be less compiled to employ them, and children may be more empowered to change their fate.
In addition to educating children, countries should also use resources, like those provided by the United States, to education healthcare professionals who may come into direct contact with children in forced labor or families who have children working in forced labor. Evidence shows that proving causation between health issues and forced child labor is very difficult, especially those issues that arise long after the forced labor. Moreover, educating healthcare professionals about these issues may at least help put it on their radar to look for when examining a child. Identifying the possible health issues early on may be very advantageous in determining whether a hazardous working condition exists.
3. If Laws and Policies are Adopted by Countries Regulating Child Trafficking or Child Labor, They Should be Properly Enforced In Order to Help Curb Future Violations
More often than not, when countries ratify the laws and policies recommended by the ILO to protect children against forced child labor and hazardous working conditions, these laws and policies have no teeth unless they are properly enforced. For example, countries could hire and train more inspectors to randomly visit manufacturers and report on the conditions they see. Moreover, because child trafficking may be regarded as forced labor due to its purpose to move children in order to exploit them, stronger enforcement banning child trafficking may lead to a decrease in forced child labor.
In conclusion, while Binod is one of several children saved by the GoodWeave organization, which “aims to stop child labor in the carpet industry,” there still remain many children who are crying for help and are left to face the grueling conditions of sweatshops everyday. There are documented cases of adults who worked in forced labor and risked their lives to send written pleas to be saved from dangerous sweatshop conditions. These pleas were in the form of letters, which were stuffed into handbags and sent to the United States, and short cries for help on the inside label of a garment. Id. Unlike some adults who are forced into labor and risk their lives to send pleas for help, many children in sweatshops have never been taught to read and write, so their cries for help remain powerless. It is up to us to help change their fate.
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