Child labor is one of the pricklier issues of our times. Although it’s been around for thousands of years, in the twenty-first century you are unlikely to find many people who will outwardly approve of the practice. Children are not as big as adults, not as strong as adults, not able to make decisions as well as adults, and – until they reach their teens – are not cognizant like adults. This last bit means that they have difficulty making sense of their world, which is why they need adults to provide them with security and guidance until they are in their mid-teens.
Despite the fact that most nations have laws against child labor, some of these nations nevertheless allow – if not encourage – children as young as seven years old to work in places that are dangerous even for adults to work. Who is at fault here? Why is this happening?
In-your-face real life examples of child labor
To answer those question, we need to look at some real-life examples. Here’s something from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net. Recently, in the country of Myanmar a fourteen-year-old boy lost two of his fingers in an accident at the steel factory where he works. Myanmar, in case you don’t know, is just to the west of Thailand and the second country just east of India (the first is Bangladesh). It is also a country in which 25% of people live below the poverty line (in the United States, the statistic is 14.5%), and 20% of children aged ten to seventeen work at a job. Parents are the ones pushing their children to do this, even though in that country it is illegal for anyone under the age of fourteen to hold a job, because they want to have enough to eat and dress in something better than rags.
Let’s move a little to the northwest on the globe up to the country of Afghanistan. From the Voice Of America website… In Afghanistan, experts estimate that during this year of 2017, more than 1,000 children might drop out of school every single day, due in part to the violence and unrest in the nation, as well as the parents needing the children’s help to make ends meet for the family. Children that drop out of school are at higher risk of being pushed into early marriages that could turn out to be abusive, of being forced to work in sweatshops, and of becoming victims of human trafficking. Read: unpaid prostitutes.
Oh, but it gets better!
Are you getting angry yet? If not, let’s talk about the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. I say “so-called” because I think that in a minute we’ll all be able to agree that the conditions for many children there aren’t at all democratic.
This information comes from http://www.wsws.org. Children as young as seven years work in Congo cobalt mines, and UNICEF estimates the number to be at least 40,000. In a recent investigation, an eight-year-old reported that he doesn’t make enough money to eat, despite working twelve-hour days, and that at the time he was questioned had not eaten for two days. This is not an isolated incident among the children working in the mines. In fact, not only do children not make a living wage, but they are coerced and beaten by their bosses, and often sent into mines that frequently collapse.
The fact that neither children nor adult miners are given any safety equipment to protect them from the hazardous cobalt dust pales in comparison.
What on earth do we need cobalt for, anyway?
You might be wondering why we need more than 40,000 children and who-knows-how-many adults working to extract cobalt from the earth. It just so happens that cobalt is one of the primary materials needed to make the lithium batteries used by laptop computers and smart phones. Ironically, the large corporations that continually source this cobalt deny the glaringly obvious – and documented – truth that any part of their products are sourced from child labor.
But before you blame everything on Big Tech…
The author of this article writes that this treatment of children is not an isolated occurrence, but a “predominant reality inflicted by the capitalist system on workers around the globe.” As you saw by the previous two examples, child labor laws are being ignored in many countries, not just the Congo. Why?
That’s a simple question to which there is no simple answer, because there are several issues going on underneath the whole child labor scenario. First, couples are having children when they can’t afford them. This is part ignorance, part religious beliefs – which you might correctly argue can perpetuate ignorance.
The second issue is that parents don’t seek other options to support their families. You might think, along with those parents, that they do not have any other options. That they are too poor to have options.
The fact is, there is always an option. What if villages, towns, or city neighborhoods came together as true communities? For example, they might begin crafting items that they could sell either locally or to markets farther away, and share the profits according to each adult’s contribution so that each family would earn a high enough income so that they wouldn’t have to commoditize their children.
The third issue at stake is that corporations are greedy. If they can find dirt-cheap labor in another country, they can make a higher profit from their product sales. The fourth issue is that Americans are generally materialistic. They cannot be happy without a lot of stuff, but because they buy houses that are much bigger than what they need and cars that are much more expensive than what is absolutely necessary, they can’t afford to pay $50 for a blouse or $2,000 for a laptop. And so they buy the cheap products put out by greedy corporations, who indirectly use children who are working in dangerous situations as part of the manufacturing process.
So, what are you going to do about it?
As I implied at the beginning, child labor is a complicated issue. And it may seem like an insurmountable one, at that. Although we may never get to the point where children aren’t being used as cheap labor anywhere in the world, there are small steps each of us can take that address one or more of the issues I just mentioned.
First and foremost, don’t buy things you don’t need – and make sure your “needs” aren’t really “wants.” This way, you will save money. And with the money you save, you can afford to purchase fair-trade items; that is, items that are made by people who got paid a living wage and who work in reasonably safe conditions.
Alternatively, purchased gently used items. That way, you do not support the manufacturers and corporations who used children during the production process. Whether you buy fair-trade or used, you vote against child labor with your wallet.
Another step is to support organizations that educate couples in developing countries about birth control. The sticky point here is that many of the citizens of such countries hold religious beliefs, such as that every act of sexual intercourse between a married couple should be open to conception. Or, they may believe that there are special rewards in Paradise for begetting as many children as possible.
In the ideal world, ministers would teach them, first, about the freedom that God has given them to make ethical and loving choices, that He does not condemn and is not displeased with couples who do not bear their own children. Or, who keep their families small. But religious beliefs are about as easy to change as a hyperactive toddler’s diaper. Teaching about birth control and opening up a dialogue about their beliefs is probably our best option.
A bigger step you could take: actually begin your own non-profit that provides education to developing nations, not only about birth control and human ethics, but about food production and other economical matters as well.
There are also a few organizations that help poor families in developing countries to start their own businesses. No, these businesses – such as producing goat milk or eggs – are not necessarily vegan. But this is an imperfect world, and sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils. What is less ethical, farming a small herd of goats that have the freedom to roam and are never mistreated, or sending a seven-year-old human into a mine to get crushed by an unfortunate collapse?
Here’s a crazy idea a few people might take me up on: invent a way to run laptops and smart phones that doesn’t require cobalt or any other material that is likely to be obtained by inhumane means. We have the technology to blow up planet Earth many times over, but we can’t find a more ethical way to power our technology? Inventors, get to work!
Finally, do you own an online business? In that case, another step you can take is to hire Virtual Assistants or independent graphic designers, etc., who live overseas. This brings us to another sticky situation, of course, because many people would accuse me of supporting the same kind of behavior that corporations who source their labor from developing nations engage in. They would accuse me of overlooking the man or woman next door who also needs to put food on the table.
To such accusers I would offer up the following thoughts. First of all, in the Western world, the independent tech-related contractors who market themselves well are going to find plenty of work to keep them busy. Those who slack off on the marketing can easily find another way to make an income. For those few who would have trouble, there are food stamps, welfare, and an abundance of help from various religious organizations.
Compare that to a woman in India whose only choices may be to hire herself out as a Virtual Assistant to someone in one of the Western nations, send her pre-teen children out to work, or to watch her family slowly starve to death.
If you still disagree with me, that’s fine. Then, at the very least support large corporations as little as you can. And when election time comes around, support the candidates who have a track record of pushing legislature that discourages child labor, and that penalizes manufacturing processes that exploit it.