The Tragedy of Child Labor

An Interview with Kailash Satyarthi

Kailash Satyarthi is head of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), a coalition of 50 organizations working on child rights issues in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In India, Satyarthy's Bonded Labour Liberation Front has freed more than 26,000 children from forced servitude. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Uruguay Round would have a tremendous impact on child labor issues, since laws designed to prevent the import of goods produced with child labor would be GATT-illegal. Under the new GATT, it would be illegal to distinguish among products based on the working conditions under which they were produced, with the sole exception of laws discriminating against imports made with prison labor.

Multinational Monitor: What is the structure and origins of SACCS?

 Kailash Satyarthi: We began in 1980 liberating bonded laborers in India. At that time, there was no awareness of the problem. A law had been enacted banning child labor, but received no more than a four or five line article in the newspaper. The bonded laborer system is really the modern form of slavery, in which one cannot choose his or her location or type of employment. It is often caused by debt, or when a person, or his father, or grandfather, borrows a small amount of money from a landlord or master and then becomes bonded forever. This affects adults as well - men and women - and it is often related to caste; you will never see a Brahmin bonded laborer.

 Once, we even encountered a member of the state assembly in Solund, Uttar Pradesh, who was a bonded laborer. We went to his house to meet with him and asked someone working on the roof if we could speak with the member of parliament. The laborer did not reply; he said to speak with his master first. We wondered how one bonded laborer could employ another bonded laborer. When we met with the master and asked to meet with the member of assembly, the master said, "You already met with him. He was the person cleaning the roof."

Back then, our first tactic was to conduct raids on factories, sometimes freeing entire families from bonded laborers. This exposed the situation in the media. We soon realized that the most vulnerable of these laborers were child laborers, with nowhere to escape to, completely unaware of their rights. We also discovered that the situation of bonded laborers was not restricted to India, but also existed in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So in 1987 and 1988, we launched campaigns throughout South Asia. SACCS now incorporates the efforts of over 50 organizations in South Asia.

MM: In which sectors of the marketplace does child labor exist?

Satyarthi: Children work in export industries, where profit margins are highest: in agriculture, construction materials, stone quarries, and in cottage industries such as carpet weaving and the glass industry. While they have been commonly found in smaller enterprises, child laborers have also been used in a bottling plant of Coca-Cola and in the tea fields of Unilever.

 In recent years there has been tremendous growth in child servitude in the export-oriented industries of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. In the case of the carpet industry in India, for example, 10 years ago, 75,000 to 100,000 children were employed in the industry. At that time, the industry brought in $100 million. Today the industry has tripled, to $300 million, with a corresponding increase in children employed in the industry of more than 300,000. So there is a very clear correlation between the growth of the industry and the number of child laborers. The situation in Pakistan is similar, with a half million children in the carpet industry. In Nepal, there are 200,000 child laborers. So altogether, there are 1 million children who produce more than two-thirds of the world's supply of carpets. Of course, in countries such as Turkey, China, Morocco, Afghanistan and Iran, children also work in very bad conditions in the carpet industry. These children cannot form unions, cannot strike and cannot go to court. This brings down standards for adults in the industry as well.

MM: What are the conditions under which children work?

Satyarthi: Children most often work in hazardous industries, exposed to fumes and other hazards. In the glass industry, children are exposed to high temperatures, and in the carpet industry, compelled to breath wool particles for the entire day. The children are also compelled to work 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week at times. Many suffer from tuberculosis and other health problems associated with the continuous inhalation of wool particles. The children work confined in small cottages, where they also eat and sleep.

 If the children cry for their mothers, they are beaten - not only in India, but in Nepal, Pakistan and many other countries. Sometimes they are hung upside down from trees and poked with cigarettes. The Nepalese carpet industry is also one of the launching points for prostitution throughout South Asia. Sexual harassment in Pakistan is common.

 In May 1994, I received information about a 12-year-old boy who tried to run away from the industry. He had been lured away from his native village of Bihar and taken to a carpet factory 400 kilometers away. He always cried for his mother and wanted to go back. On April 24, he was caught trying to escape. His master had beaten the boy so badly that the boy collapsed. The boy was then hacked into three pieces and each piece buried in different places.

MM: How is the practice of child labor justified?

Satyarthi: Many countries find excuses for child labor in poverty, unemployment among adults, illiteracy and other so-called "harsh socio-economic realities." The carpet importers' lobby in the United States, as well as the big exporting houses in Asia, have argued that since the children are poor, it is better they work in the carpet industry than resort to prostitution or starvation.

 But children who are working to bring income for their families and also receive some schooling are different than those who are compelled to sell their present and future to servitude. In the case of the carpet industry, as well as the leather, gem cutting and processing and many other industries, children are nameless, faceless, voiceless non-entities. They have no education or health care. They are deprived of their basic childhood in the present and are also denied their future.

MM: How successful have your efforts to combat child labor in South Asia been?

Satyarthi: In the past 14 years, we have been able to eliminate several thousand child labor positions through raids on factories. We have often been attacked. Two of my colleagues have been killed, one of them beaten to death. But despite efforts such as ours, the number of child workers has tripled.

 For 10 years, when we focused on placing pressure on the industry within India, we wrote thousands of letters to various carpet exporters, manufacturers and governments. But the carpet industry in India enjoys a sort of "blue-eyed boy" status, because it brings in foreign exchange. The manufacturers can bribe their way around and influence local governments. Not a single carpet maker has been convicted under a 1986 law that declared the carpet industry one of the most hazardous industries. Laws banning child labor in India, enacted in 1976, and in Pakistan, enacted in 1993, have yet to result in a single child being released.

 Ninety-seven to 98 percent of carpets are exported to Western consumers, and demand is rising rapidly. Thus, we decided to focus on the consumer market, particularly in Germany, which was the single largest purchaser of Indian carpets. We then expanded to other European markets and the United States.

The only success we have seen has been through consumer pressure. It was only after our consumer campaign that the industry even admitted the problem of child labor existed. Until that time, the industry and government claimed children working in the industry were working in family looms, learning a craft. There are now over 50 exporters who have pledged not to use child labor. They have even formed their own association for carpet manufacturers who do not use child laborers. This has also created pressure for reform in other industries where child labor is a problem, involving industries where we are not active.

 When consumers were made aware of how their carpets were produced, they demanded child labor-free carpets. We devised a labeling (rug mark) scheme which would guarantee that consumers could easily find carpets made free of child labor. We did not support a ban on carpets, or a ban on products produced in India or Pakistan. Rather, we decided to move in a more positive direction, trying to find ways and means to shift labor in the industry from children to adults. The carpet belt in India is confined to four or five areas. In these areas, 300,000 children are working, while 400,000 adults are jobless. Every year, 100,000 adults from these areas are compelled to leave the area in search of work, often to the slums of major cities. Thus, adults are made jobless to give children jobs.

 At first, the Indian government wanted to implement the rug mark scheme. But we demanded an independent and professional body to monitor and inspect the factories, along with a scientific and independent labeling scheme.

MM: In the United States, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would ban the import of made with child labor. What has been the impact of this bill for your struggle?

Satyarthi: The Harkin Bill, the Child Labor Deterrence Act has served as a shot in the arm for our movement, although we oppose some of the more protectionist clauses in the bill. The original text of the bill gave monitoring responsibilities to U.S. importers and the U.S. government, and there was no provision for follow-up action to assist children now working in the carpet industry. We suggested an independent monitoring system within the country of export and additional money for educating children released from the industry. These suggestions have been incorporated in the latest version of the bill.

MM: Will consumer pressure be enough to end child labor?

Satyarthi: While consumer pressure can create a new market for child labor-free carpets, the impact of these initiatives are limited without certain legal measures. Ethically-produced coffee, for example, only maintains a five or six percent share of the market. It is more expensive than other coffee and can only compete to a limited degree. Therefore, in the context of carpets, we have advocated a ban on the import of carpets made with child labor in addition to promoting the rug mark. But this should not be done in a protectionist manner. The children must have somewhere to go when they are released from the industry. Funds from any multilateral sanctions on the industry must be made available for follow up - for free and compulsory primary education. The World Bank, IMF, European Union and other international bodies are giving huge amounts of money for "education for all." But this can never be implemented if the children remain working for 12 or 16 hours a day. These funds should be diverted to children who are freed from the carpet or any other industry.