First Published on June 19, 2001
On the outskirts of New Delhi, inside an anonymous concrete building and up a narrow stairway, Fauzia, 8, is making bindis. Dozens of small, colored fabric circle- and teardrop-shaped cutouts lie strewn on top of a wooden bed, next to a window. Next to the colored shapes, each the size of a fingertip, lie a scattering of colorful beads. Her hands moving quickly, Fauzia picks up a fabric circle, puts a dot of glue in its center, and then carefully places a bead or two on the glue. One bindi finished. Dozens to go.
The room is dark and close, but the window lets in the blinding light and stifling heat of a July afternoon.
“Here is child labor,” says the man who led a visitor to see Fauzia. “Come upstairs.”
Another narrow flight of stairs, a screen door, and then we are on the building’s roof. It is a concrete square no more than 20 feet by 20 feet. The space is packed with children, sitting cross-legged, knee-to knee. “Here,” he says, “Is the school.”
Is this a scene of hope? A poor girl spends part of the day working to bring in a few rupees for her family, which includes her mother and two sisters, one of them developmentally disabled. Part of the day, she spends in the upstairs school.
Or horror? A girl who can only go to school part-time spends up to seven hours a day making bindis instead of studying or playing.
Fauzia is better off than are many Indian children who do not go to school even part-time. Although primary school enrollment is almost universal for boys and 80 percent for girls, according to UNICEF statistics, enrollment shrinks over time. In secondary school, only 60 percent of boys are enrolled, as are 40 percent of girls.
The world’s child laborers number 250 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14, according to the International Labor Organization. About half of these children work full-time. About 120 million perform jobs that the ILO considers harmful or hazardous to their health and well-being. Asia is home to some 60 percent of all child laborers.
Since the mid-1980s, child labor has raced to the top of the international agenda. The new attention to this old problem is driven in part by fear that “globalization”—booming trade and flows of international finance—has increased exploitative work for children. Anti-World Bank and anti-IMF protesters from Seattle to Washington, D.C. to Prague to Quebec City cite child labor as one of the primary “evils” of globalization.
In the 1980s, European non-governmental organizations launched campaigns against carpets hand-made by children in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Morocco. When the campaigns began, both the carpet industry and the governments of those countries denied that child labor existed within their borders.
Later, these governments admitted that millions of children are doing work that is too harmful, or dangerous, for young bodies and minds. The ILO, UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations have conducted pilot projects to rescue children from slavery, war, and harmful work and put them into schools. In1999, the ILO’s more than 180 member countries unanimously adopted a convention calling for immediate action against the “worst” forms of child labor.
The next step is implementing the new standard. “Implementation,” says William E. Myers, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Davis and an internationally known expert on child labor and education, “is always the problem.”
Consider Fauzia, and her bindis. Is she working in one of the “worst” forms of child labor? If those bindis are exported for sale in a shop on University Avenue in Berkeley or in a Foster City shopping mall, should shoppers concerned about the girl buy her bindis—or boycott them? Could, or should, something else be done to help her?
The convention on the “worst” forms of child labor has been ratified by 61 countries, which is a record number for such a new convention. Each country that ratifies the convention must submit to the ILO within a year an action plan for eradicating the “worst” forms of child labor. Only a handful of countries have begun to put their action plans into place, according to the ILO. In South Asia, only Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have ratified the convention.
“Creating and ratifying the convention is the easy part,” said ILO Director General Juan Somavia when the convention was adopted in 1999. “The tougher part is finding ladders for them to climb out of the deep pits of violence and discrimination they live in.”
Some anti-child labor advocates believe one of those key ladders is trade.
“Economic means are still one of the best ways to get a government’s attention,” according to one of the “child labor lessons” collected for a Stanford University conference in February 2001.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ill., has proposed legislation that would ban the import of all goods made by children.
And yet, most governments of developing countries have consistently opposed linking trade and provisions against child labor. They cite statistics, such as U.S. government estimates, showing that less than 5 percent of child laborers work in export industries. They also say linking trade with anti-child labor measures is protectionist.
Even many working children oppose linking trade and child labor. “We are against the boycott of products made by children,” said a manifesto adopted by a 1996 international meeting of working children in Kundapur, India.
Trade unions and other anti-child labor activists in the U.S. and Europe have at times openly opposed trade in child-made goods because they compete with products made by adult U.S. workers. But unions also point out that they have opposed child labor for more than 100 years, before trade in child-made products was as.
The most common argument against boycotts, however, is that they drive children out of the export sector—but not out of work. Children who leave export jobs often go to other work. When Harkin’s legislation was originally introduced, in 1993, garment manufacturers in Bangladesh fired tens of thousands of children. UNICEF found some laid-off garment workers in worse jobs, such as breaking bricks under the hot sun.
A backlash against the Harkin bill led to a breakthrough. Garment manufacturers promised to fire all their underage workers. The child workers then were sent to schools supported by the ILO, UNICEF, the Bangladesh government and garment manufacturers themselves.
The Bangladesh plan was the model for similar work-to-school plans in the soccer ball manufacturing industry of Sialkot, Pakistan; the rug-making industry of Lahore, Pakistan; the agricultural sector of the Dominican Republic; and in the coffee-growing sectors of six Central American countries.
The Central American programs are putting into practice several lessons from South Asia, according to Rijk van Haarlem, an ILO technical advisor who helped design the Bangladesh program and now is working on the Central American programs. One is that taking children out of work is not enough. The Central American program also delivers education and health care to children, campaigns against child labor, and helps families find alternative sources of income.
The record of the ILO-supported programs is mixed.
Supporters argue that the ILO/UNICEF/manufacturers program helped raise the profile of child labor in Bangladesh, and created schools where none existed previously. “The project generated enough interest in Bangladesh that in just two years child labor has become a major social issue in the country,” said A.K. Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations, to a Stanford University conference in February 2001.
But critics say that the program is too expensive to help the vast majority of working children, who do not work in export industries. The way the project got started, and its implementation, resulted in 10,000 children in the new schools—only one-tenth the estimated number of children working in the garment industry before 1993.
And despite the program’s best efforts, children continue to work after school and even in the garment industry. Casualty lists from garment industry fires still include children. Last November, a fire in a factory in Narsingdi, 35 miles northeast of Dhaka, killed 52, including 10 children.
An ILO guide to child labor policy, printed last year, recommends children in harmful work, such as prostitution, should be removed from the job. But the report says that in less harmful situations, children might benefit from a part-time work, part-time school option.
Providing more and better education, however, has proven to be something most governments more readily promise than deliver.
In 1990, at an international conference in Jomtien, Thailand, governments from around the world pledged to provide “basic education for all” by 2000. “Ten years on,” said the non-governmental organization Oxfam International in a statement last year, “the international community has failed to keep the promise it made.”
In April, this year, many of the same governments “have not yet established the mechanisms to orchestrate their efforts and implement their strategies,” said John Daniel, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education.
Some 125 million children, according to UNESCO, are not in school or drop out before finishing. In India, anti-child labor and school reform proposals vary greatly from state to state. Some states, such as Kerala, have strong primary education while others, such as Uttar Pradesh, lag.
Sometimes, a non-governmental organization can take the first step, by setting up a non-formal school in an area where the government has failed, according to Kiran Bedi, a pioneering social worker based in New Delhi. “Then people start asking, ‘Why doesn’t the government do its job?’” she says. “And then the government follows.”
Working children, however, need to have schools brought to them, and operated according to their needs, says Inderjit Khurana, the founder of more than 100 informal schools on railway platforms in Orissa. Later, they may be able to reenter regular schools, but many still need support so that they do not drop out.
“Schools for working children should have absolutely zero barriers,” she says.
Where Fauzia works, the arguments over international conventions and child labor laws, full-time and part-time education, seem far away. On the crowded roof floor, in school, she smiles shyly when asked what she hopes to do in the future. “I want,” she says in a strong voice, “to be a teacher.”
Sarah L. Bachman is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center.