Child labor. It’s one of those phrases like “drug cartel,” “domestic violence,” or “prostitution ring,” that all of us have used in conversations about others but would never expect to use in sentences about ourselves. It’s one of those distant dilemmas you read about in the paper, argue about over dinner when appropriate legislative proposals make newspaper headlines. Child labor happens far away, in the third world, and nobody really knows what it means.

It took a school assignment on sweatshop practices abroad—in my case, it often takes a school assignment—and a number of visits to www.sweatshopwatch.org and www.clean clothes.org for me to realize that despite my rhetoric about boycotting the GAP and protesting unsafe working conditions, I didn’t really know anything about child labor, at home or overseas.
c99e2b561799a8fcf7198e2663f988b3-1I didn’t know that India is one of the world’s largest exporters of footballs and other inflatable balls, second only to Pakistan. I didn’t know that the industry has been built on the backs of over 10 thousand children, some as young as 5 years old, who struggle in inhumane, sweatshop conditions to manufacture the footballs they themselves will never be able to kick around. I didn’t know that in 1998, there were more children under the age of 14 in India than the entire population of the United States.

I didn’t know about Sonia.

In May 2002, 15-year-old Sonia of Jalandhar, India joined thousands of soccer aficionados at the World Cup in Korea. But Sonia hadn’t traveled to Korea to watch the games; she couldn’t. Sonia was blind, her impairment the result of a factory accident at age 7. She felt, however, a deep connection to the soccer players and their sport. After all, she’d spent the last eight years of her life stitching black-and-white footballs by touch alone. While others her age, myself included, tuned in to the World Cup on cable with sodas and remote controls in hand, Sonia, a former child laborer, was prepared to speak out against the exploitive practices of the Indian sporting goods industry.

In Sonia’s district of Jalandhar, 24 percent of families have at least one child involved in football stitching; 10,000 children stitch footballs. Workers are paid between 11 and 28 rupees per ball stitched; given the current exchange rate, the former works out to approximately 22 cents per ball. On average, a stitcher can finish four balls in one workday.

That’s a grand total of 88 cents a day.

To put things into perspective, my mother reminded me that on our last trip to India, 11 rupees bought two, two-inch 5-Star candy bars.

In Uttar Pradesh, near Benares, 100,000 boys averaging 6 years of age are at work 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for approximately 40 cents a week. They’re often afflicted with bone deformation, respiratory diseases, malnutrition, and poor eyesight as a result of the ill-treatment. Adult workers in both the sporting goods and carpet industries, too, complain of backaches and eye-related problems. But there is no public primary health care system for sweatshop laborers, and there is little to no support for advanced medical treatment from exporters.

And the two mentioned industries are not the only ones at fault. The apparel, accessories, and cosmetics industries in India employ laborers in sweatshop conditions as well. At PPR, a French retailer located in Tiripur that owns brands including Ellos, Gucci, Brylane, FNAC, and Yves Saint-Laurent, some workers earn only 10 cents an hour, work 13 hours each day, and must struggle to make ends meet, before they meet their ends.

I stopped carrying my Gucci purse, wearing Yves Saint-Laurent perfume. But would boycotting the brands stop child and sweatshop labor? I was disheartened to discover that so many familiar products were manufactured in such abhorrent factories. Thankfully, my research revealed hope for both workers and the weary consumer.

The Indian government is determined to eradicate child labor and sweatshops in the country, and together with a number of voluntary organizations and foreign nations, it has established the world’s largest child labor elimination program. In 1998, the budget allocation for the elimination of child labor alone was 21 million dollars. The International Program on Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), too, has the world’s largest international initiative on child labor in India, and the Indian Constitution is one of few to address specifically the issue of child and sweatshop labor.

Of course, even the most well-intentioned doctrine is just empty rhetoric if it isn’t put into praxis for social change. The Child Labor Prohibition & Regulation Act of 1986 forbids the employment of children under 14 in factories, mines, and other arenas of hazardous employment. It also regulates the working conditions of children in “non-hazardous fields of employment.” In 1993, the Indian government further outlawed employment of children in slaughter-houses, printing houses, cashew de-scaling and processing plants, and soldering factories. According to the United States Indian Embassy, India was one of the first among developing nations to have such a progressive policy.

The National Policy on Education, enacted in 1986, places priority on a program of “universal elementary education.” Consequently, each individual state government has eliminated tuition fees in the government-run school system. All children are entitled to an education through Upper Primary level, even if they hail from a low socio-economic background. The Supreme Court of India also ruled in 1996 that financial assistance of approximately 20,000 rupees ($400) would be provided to any family that removed a child or children from hazardous work environments and placed the child/children in school.

The Indian government has assumed responsibility for the exploitation of children and sweatshop laborers within their borders. Strides have been taken to outlaw the employment of children, better working conditions for all employees, and to keep children in school during their formative years. But does that mean the rest of us, the consumers, are free from responsibility?

I know now what “child labor” means, and I cannot ignore the reality. Child labor is not just a distant dilemma; it happens at home, in my world. I’ve kicked its soccer balls, walked its carpets, worn its clothes, and held it in my hands.

But I can hold it no longer. I’ve found a new home for my Gucci purse and contraband perfume: in a box at the bottom of my closet.

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