Sometimes, Child Labor Falls Into Gray Areas
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
The campaign to eliminate the horrors of child labor has a long way to go. Nearly a quarter-billion children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous or extremely exploitative, and the global economic slowdown isn't helping.
But there is a continuum of children at work: child soldiers, factory slaves and the sex trade on one end; at the other, families who rely on kids to work on the family farm or get a job at a fast-food joint to help in hard times.
Somewhere in the middle, there's a gray area. Whenever you think about a job - if it robs a child of their future, or just helps out the family, might just depend on how good the rest of your choices are.
So where do you draw that line in your family? Tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, did Fidel say the Cuban economic model doesn't work anymore? Julia Sweig joins us. But first, child labor. And we begin with Jane Stewart, special representative and director of the International Labour Organization's office to the United Nations, formerly minister of human resources in Canada. She joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. JANE STEWART (Director, Office to the United Nations, International Labour Organization): It's a pleasure, Neal. Thanks for the opportunity.
CONAN: And obviously, child soldiers, sexual exploitation is unacceptable under any circumstances. Once you get into the gray area, though, don't different cultures draw those lines in different places?
Ms. STEWART: At the ILO, we look at child labor quite specifically. And maybe it's a good place to start to talk about what child labor is. As you point out, Neal, there are the unconditional, worst forms of child labor that must be eliminated. Those are slavery and prostitution, pornography, illicit activities.
There's also labor that jeopardizes the physical or mental and moral well-being of a child, and that's called hazardous work. But then there's also - and this is very important - labor performed by a child whos under the minimum age.
And this is important because working can impede the child's education and full development. And for healthy and robust and productive societies, having children well-educated, and able to engage at the right age in productive activities, is really important.
CONAN: And at the same time, if they're not - obviously - allowed to pursue their education, that just - well, perpetuates poverty.
Ms. STEWART: It is. It's a vicious cycle, then. And one of the things that we know to be true is the more education a young child has the opportunity to have, the better able he or she is to participate in healthy youth employment activities, and then go on to be a real contributor, supporting themselves and their families.
CONAN: Well, I think something - according to a report that came out last spring from your organization, 50 percent of all people in developing countries working today, work in agriculture. Well, does that count as exploitative or not?
Ms. STEWART: There's no question, when we look at the sectors where child labor occurs, agriculture is probably the largest. About 60 percent of the child labor is in the agricultural sector.
The challenge is to really drill down and deal with the root causes of child labor. And when we're talking about agriculture, it means we've got to increase the productivity of parents who are providing for their families through agricultural means to make sure the infrastructure is there, and to help them in that regard.
We also have to be sure that quality, free education is available for their children, and that there are social protection programs in place that will allow parents to work, and children to go to school.
So projects like we see in Brazil and other countries in Latin America, where there is a conditional cash contribution to a family when the child goes to school, is one of the solutions that gets at the roots of child labor.
CONAN: Well, does the ILO help with that? I mean, what does this organization actually do other than say this is a terrible thing?
Ms. STEWART: Well first, you know, listeners might be interested to know that the International Labour Organization is not just a place where governments come to talk about policy, but we're what we call a tripartite organization that includes governments, workers' organizations and employers' organizations. So here, the real economy actually comes together and deals with the issues of the labor market.
One of the big outcomes of our work together are international labor standards. And certainly the office assists governments, workers and employers to implement those standards to - you know - determine if, in fact, countries that have ratified the standards are applying them. And that's a big part of our work.
But we also know that we can provide and help workers, employers and governments figure out how to get at these root causes; for example, in the area of youth employment. And we have a very large program, the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor, where on the ground, we go together and build solutions, and test programs and strategies that can actually deal with the challenges.
CONAN: Can you give us an example of one of these ideas that worked?
Ms. STEWART: Yeah, more recently, for example in Bahia state in Brazil, which is working to become a child-labor-free state, we are taking an area-wide look at the issues associated with child labor.
We're going to look at all the sectors where children maybe do find themselves employed in what can be called child labor, and identify how to eliminate the opportunities that seem to present themselves there.
We're looking at the social realities facing their parents, and looking at the social programs that need to be extended to assist them. But we're taking a whole-area approach because what you don't want to happen is for a child to leave child labor in one sector - for example, agriculture - and then go into another sector because that's really the only alternative.
So the approaches are integrated. They're inclusive. They're at the community level, including the community as well as workers employers. There's social dialogue that's very much a part of finding the way forward because it is challenging, and you don't just go in and say, okay now, this is the you know, no more kids in work. It doesn't work that way. You've got to really identify the root causes associated with it in a particular area, in a particular community, and dig down and deal with those directly.
CONAN: And earlier, you told us what kind of factors make it unacceptable. Is there a similar list of factors that make it acceptable when a kid works?
Ms. STEWART: Not all work done by children is child labor and needs to be eliminated. There are children and adolescents who participate in work that doesn't affect their health or their personal development or interfere with their schooling, and can be generally regarded as being something thats positive.
It can include - you know - helping the parents around the home, or assisting in certain activities associated with a family business, or earning pocket money outside of the school hours. So and our conventions are quite specific in detailing what is and what isn't child labor.
So, you know, it's not - as you pointed out at the top of the show, it's not black and white. But I'll tell you, it's pretty clear in the conventions what can and should be considered child labor, and what we're trying to work towards here.
And really, fundamentally, it's looking at our children and saying, look, we know they need a good education. We know they need a good meal. We know they need parents who are able to earn enough to support themselves and their families.
We know they need to have access to health care and social programs that can support them. And we really do know how to do it. You know, we really do, and it takes political will, and it does take financing.
CONAN: We're talking with Jane Stewart of the International Labour Organization, the organization's representative for the United Nations. 800-989-8255; email us, email@example.com. Where do you draw the line on kids at work in your family?
And let's begin with Mark(ph), and Mark's calling us from Parkville in Missouri.
MARK (Caller): Good afternoon.
MARK: I started working in my father's print shop when I was about 8. It was always voluntary. We were always paid at the same we often did bindery piecework at the same rates that adults could, and kids' hands can be fast, and we actually were able to earn quite nicely under those conditions.
I also did things like emptying wastebaskets, but Dad was extremely safety-conscious.
CONAN: I was going to say, those presses can be dangerous.
MARK: Oh, well, we were taught to stay away from the these are the dangerous places, and keep yourself away from them. We also learned a great deal about how the folks made the money that we all lived off of, and how hard they worked. So in my experience, it was a very good thing.
CONAN: And how much time did you do that, after school?
MARK: After school. Yeah, it never interfered with school. Nothing interfered with school in our family.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And how much - was this for pocket change?
MARK: Oh, it could be more than pocket change. If there was a lot of bindery work to do and I felt like doing it, I could make quite a lot. I supported my model railroad habit for quite a while nicely with that kind of money.
CONAN: So the Lionel company was happy about that?
MARK: Actually, it was...
MARTIN: Athern(ph), HO, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, okay, all right. Mark, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
MARK: You're welcome. Bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Jane Stewart, that sounds like something that, well, does not fall within the rules of child labor.
Ms. STEWART: Well, the way Mark described it, some of it might, some of it might not. Again, you know, kids at a certain age are able to do some things and not able to do other things. I mean, a small child is not really able to drive a big tractor. A small child is not really able to deal with heavy equipment. These things are just completely unacceptable.
And you know, you just don't want to go there, I don't think, as a parent and no matter what. I mean, emptying the wastebaskets, you know, fine. That's not an issue. Earning some pocket change is not an issue.
But the fact of the matter is, kids can get hurt, and they can get hurt much more easily than adults. And these are the kinds of things that we're dealing with when we're talking about child labor.
CONAN: And we think of - again, the phrase brings up images of kids chained to looms somewhere in, you know, India or Pakistan or, as you say, kids working on farms in Africa or South America. We, in this country and your home country, Canada, like to think we're different. Are we?
Well, it's interesting to note that the kinds of comments that (unintelligible) do happen. I mean, it's been encouraging to hear Secretary of State Solis actually identify here that yeah, you know, there is child labor that goes on in the United States, and this is something we've got to deal with.
I mean, part of that probably is because she's seen it. She comes from a state where migrant workers are engaged in the agricultural sector. And, you know, there are real issues associated with that. And she's been quite open about saying, we've got to do better; we've got to deal with this. And I think that's a very positive message to the world.
CONAN: And again, primarily the agriculture sector is what you're talking about?
Ms. STEWART: Agriculture, for one. You'll hear others talk about the fact that there is trading in children, trafficking in children. You may hear about the odd issues associated with even a sweatshop or a fast-food place - but those are one-off circumstances.
But primarily, again, agriculture - as in other countries - is where you find the majority of child labor occurring.
CONAN: Jane Stewart - and just a reminder to those who joined us late, when she speaks of child labor, by definition that means things that are unacceptable under conditions, charters by the International Labour Organization, for which she works in New York as its representative to the United Nations.
If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Where do you draw the line in your family? What kind of choices did you have? I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Just yesterday, the U.S. government and the chocolate industry announced a partnership to help end child labor - some of it forced and dangerous - with the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where much of the world's cocoa is grown.
But there's a long continuum between the worst kind of work on cocoa farms, and kids taking a job to help out their family in the recession. Where do you draw the line?
Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Jane Stewart, special representative and director of the International Labour Organization's office to the United Nations. She's at our bureau in New York. And let's see if we can get Arcadia(ph) on the line, Arcadia calling from Philadelphia.
ARCADIA (Caller): Hi. I'm calling because I had an experience as a teenager of seeing child labor up close when my family joined the Eastern Mennonites in (technical difficulties).
And I, there, observed a really big - well, I would call it child slavery because the children that are born to those families, they have absolutely no choice about the direction of their life. They're put to work as soon as they can walk.
I lived with families that had dairy farms, and they were waking up in the middle of the night to milk the cows, as well as during the day, waking up small toddlers and bringing them out.
I did see a lot of children getting injured, and in the two years that I was going to the Mennonite church, I actually even attended a funeral for a little girl who fell off a tractor and was run over by her father, who didn't notice she had fallen asleep.
So there was all kinds of ranges of injuries and death. And my brother, who was 14 when we moved there, was put to work on a pig farm. And he had no experience in farms prior to moving there, and they suddenly were working him 16 hours a day. And he has permanent hearing damage from the screaming of the pigs, and he has back damage from the weight of the loads that he was forced to carry during work.
So it was kind of horrible for him. For the rest of his life, he'll have these injuries.
CONAN: And Arcadia, I'm sure that the people would explain this - this is our way of life, this is our tradition and indeed, it's part of our religion.
Ms. STEWART: That's right, and that's how it was explained. And no one really questions it. And most of the people living there, they had known no other way. They had no basis of comparison because they're pretty well sheltered from exposure to, you know, environments where that kind of thing would be frowned upon.
And then when they do go out into the communities, you know, they're viewed as, you know, quaint quilters and farmers, and it looks very wholesome on the outside. But having been on the inside, I just saw it as like, there was like -horrific violations of childhood in that these children were working so long, so hard and in such a dangerous situation; coupled with the fact that they weren't, most of them weren't even allowed to continue going to school past eighth grade.
There was a church school, and then most children were pulled from the school at the legal minimum and then immediately, you know, forced into whatever their families...
CONAN: Well, let me just pose a question to Jane Stewart. The Eastern Mennonites are not the only group that feels this way or treats their children like that. What do you do in that situation?
Ms. STEWART: There are laws. And that's what these conventions are about, to help countries to pass and articulate legislation that can deal with the issues of child labor.
It means you do have to have monitoring, and you have to have strong labor institutions, but these are the kinds of things that we're talking about.
You know, economies evolve, and we know now that these are things that are not positive in terms of child development, and in terms of a bright and strong future. And these are things that need to be dealt with.
CONAN: I hear that, but this group says wait a minute, this is a violation of our religious freedom.
Ms. STEWART: But these are fundamental standards that are now part of a society when they're passed in legislation, and they apply to all citizens.
So these are the kinds of I mean, this articulation and, you know, this is Arcadia's experience, so I can't comment on her experience - but there's an element that I would like to draw on, which is this question of the minimum age and the relationship to education.
And Neal, when we're looking at the minimum age, we really do connect the two parts and identify that the minimum age for work shouldn't be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling, and in any case shouldn't be less than 15.
But that linkage between work and school is fundamental to our approach to dealing with child labor and, as I say, getting at the root causes of it.
CONAN: Arcadia, we can hear in the background you've got some kids of your own now. So we'll give you time to go back and take care of them. Thank you very much.
ARCADIA: (Unintelligible) pick up their own toys, let alone work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ARCADIA: ...against their will. But thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: And good luck getting them to pick up their toys.
ARCADIA: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Sixty percent of child labor happens in Asia, though many of the countries are signatories to the Convention on Child Labor. Arum Ratnawati is the ILO's National Child Labour Project director in Indonesia.
It's her job to translate these laws into reality for families facing enormously difficult decisions. And she joins us now on the phone from Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Nice to have you with us today.
Arum Ratnawati, can you hear us?
Ms. ARUM RATNAWATI (Indonesia Director, National Child Labour Project, International Labour Organization): Hello.
CONAN: Yes, hi there.
Ms. RATNAWATI: Yes, I can hear you.
CONAN: Good. I wonder...
Ms. RATNAWATI: Can you...?
CONAN: Yes, we can hear you fine. I wondered if you could tell us if you've seen an increase in child workers since the beginning of the global recession. The report issued by the ILO last spring suggested that, at least the rate of decrease is going down.
Ms. RATNAWATI: Yeah, right. In the case of Indonesia, if we look at the statistical data, the number of child labor activity decreases. And it's a bit difficult to look at whether, you know, the current crisis is really affecting the situation of child labor in Indonesia.
But you know, the plan in Indonesia - the number is decreased, but the market is still significant, especially in the informal sector and in agriculture.
CONAN: And how do you convince parents that they should stop sending their children to work? This is an important part of their income.
Ms. RATNAWATI: Yeah, this is the I know in Jakarta, I work with - what's it called - the government union employers and other stakeholder, like a government organization, to work on this issue, especially by advocating the government to have a policy, and an environment and legislation that can stop child labor in Indonesia.
CONAN: Are businesses that hire children subject to penalties?
Ms. RATNAWATI: According to the law, the minimum age - for example, in Indonesia, is 15 years old because Indonesia already ratified the ILO convention, both ILO conventions, on minimum age as well as on the small-child labor.
And it's there in the national law that, you know, employing children under minimum age is prohibited, as well as employing children (unintelligible) is also prohibited.
The problem is that, you know, the root causes of all of this is poverty, and sometimes the legal approach alone is not effective. We have to also work from other side - like, you know, wellness, poverty alleviation, education program, etc. So the approach should be a multi-approach.
CONAN: Arum Ratnawati, we want to thank you very much for your views on this situation and your expertise. We know it's very late there, and we appreciate your taking the time to be with us today.
Ms. RATNAWATI: You are welcome.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's see if we go next to this is Kenneth(ph), Kenneth with us from Charlotte.
KENNETH (Caller): Hi there. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
KENNETH: I just wanted to comment that I'm in Charlotte now, but I grew up in Connecticut. And when I was 14, I picked tobacco to support my mother, who is a single mother. We were very poor.
CONAN: Most people don't think of Connecticut as a tobacco-growing state, but up north near Hartford - and between Hartford and Springfield, yeah.
KENNETH: Windsor Locks, actually, near the airport. That's where some of the best cigar-wrappers in the world come from, and you know, you're up there in the humidity during the summer, 40 hours a week, and a bunch of 14-year-olds dragging their butts through the dirt, picking the tobacco.
But I did that for $3.27 an hour, and to me back then, that was a small fortune. So and there were a lot of us. So it was definitely institutionalized.
CONAN: And did you feel that, looking back on it, this was exploitation?
KENNETH: I don't. I mean, it was just during the summer. It wasn't forced. It was just something for a lot of poor kids to do. And it really did teach me, very early on, a very powerful work ethic that I still have to this day.
So I don't I think it's - 14 years old, agriculture, it's kind of on the line, but it's definitely not emptying wastebaskets. But no, I think any younger than that, I think, probably would be over the line.
CONAN: Anybody get hurt?
KENNETH: No, just you couldn't get the tobacco juice off of you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KENNETH: You know, and it was a permanent fixture on you for the summer. So that was an issue, but...
CONAN: I can understand that, going to the Friendly's with that stink on you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KENNETH(ph): Right. That's right.
CONAN: Jane Stewart, this is the - I'm not sure those practices have changed much.
Ms. STEWART: I think in some areas, they have. But Kenneth, I'm with you. The part of Canada I come from was a tobacco belt as well and...
Ms. STEWART: ...it was common for kids to be out of school for a period of time to work in the fields. The challenge is, again, looking at the age - and I'm so happy that you were looking at it in terms of your capability as a 14-year-old to do some of the work that was out there - running the tractor, sitting on the back, you know, popping the plants in or priming. And it could be very dangerous. And you've got to have certain strengths, and you got to have certain capacities and a mental agility to be able to participate in this kind of work. And I think that's an important point.
I think something else that I'd like to highlight is, you were talking about supporting your mom. And this is one of the real challenges, in terms of the root causes of child labor and why at the U.N., for example, during the Millennium Development Goals, we're talking about the importance of having social protection floors in place, where there really are opportunities to help families who are poor or who are aged, you know - like in Africa, where the HIV/AIDS epidemic has just killed so many, and grandparents are looking after children - to having cash transfers that will help them support the family if they can't make enough money themselves and therefore, stem the need to send children to school.
So this idea of, you know, people who through no fault of their own are poor - you know, to find ways, through government policy and sharing, to assist with that is essential to dealing with this issue of children labor, for sure.
CONAN: Jane Stewart, where do they grow tobacco in Canada?
Ms. STEWART: Really, you don't know, Neal?
CONAN: No, I don't.
Ms. STEWART: Well, I come from southwestern Ontario. And in Norfolk County and Brandt County, where I'm from, we had a pretty robust tobacco industry going.
CONAN: And what kind of tobacco - cigar-wrapping tobacco, as they grow up in northern Connecticut?
Ms. STEWART: Well, or cigarettes mostly, yes.
CONAN: Cigarette tobacco?
Ms. STEWART: The cigarette tobacco, yeah.
CONAN: I did not know that. Well, thank you very much. We learn something new every day.
Ms. STEWART: Yeah. Well, now, this is part of how agriculture changes. You know, I mean, that's not a big part of our agricultural economy anymore. And I think that's part and parcel of going back to Arcadia's question. Methods change and productivity improves. And these are some of the things that we have to bring to - for example, countries in Africa that are needing to improve the productivity, their agriculture, to get kids out of labor.
CONAN: Kenneth, thanks very much for your phone call. Appreciate it.
KENNETH: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Jane Stewart, who's the special representative and director of the International Labour Organization's office to the United Nations, about child labor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this from Andrea(ph): I grew up on farm in Minnesota, the middle child of five kids. I had to help my mom in the house and my dad in the field, starting about 6 years old. I was also farmed out to a neighbor as payment for fieldwork he did for my dad. I drove heavy equipment - hay swather, tractors - starting at around 14 years old, before I had a driver's license.
I never got paid for this work. I was told no work, no eat. If I complained, I was beaten. I was expected to work. Even my brother said I got it worse than them because I had to take care of them in the house, cleaning and cooking, and help my dad in the field and with the livestock. As a result, I learned how to work, but I have been very vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people who don't hesitate to use up a worker, or take advantage of someone willing to work.
And boy, I'm not sure that that doesn't count as some sort of forced labor.
Ms. STEWART: That's exactly what we're talking about. You know, I mean, and kids are vulnerable. Employers turn to children because they're cheap, because they don't stand up for their rights, because they're vulnerable. And these are the kinds of stories that really are at the heart of why this piece of policy, and public policy, is so critical.
CONAN: Let's get - next to Katie(ph). Katie is with us from Greensboro, South Carolina - North Carolina, excuse me.
KATIE (Caller): Yes, that's me. Hello, Neal. Hi, Jane.
Ms. STEWART: Hi, Katie.
KATIE: Thank you for talking to me.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
KATIE: I was calling, actually, Jane, because you were talking a little earlier about some of the social pilot programs that you're running in the northeast of Brazil, in the state of Bahia.
Ms. STEWART: Mmm.
KATIE: And I lived in Brazil for about three years recently. I was actually in Sao Paulo, but I did do some traveling in the northeast. And one of the things that I noticed in Brazil, which I think is common in many countries, is that in addition to child labor in what we might refer to as more acceptable areas of work, such as agriculture, they have a large problem with child prostitution and children beggars on the streets and parents who have, you know, baby after baby after baby and after baby to send them out - because people are more likely to give them money.
So when you were talking about the program where you pay - or the government pays these kids to go to school, so that money - so the parents will no longer put them into child-labor situations, a lot of these kids will go to school from, say, 7 in the morning 'til noon, and then they will be on the streets begging from 1 until midnight, or they'll be participating in prostitution in the afternoons and the evenings. And I shouldn't say participating because they're forced into it. And I was just wondering what your organization does to counter that. I don't know, how do you deal with this kind - these kinds of issues?
Ms. STEWART: It's an excellent question. It gets, again, at the heart of why we need integrated approaches to deal with child labor, Katie. It isn't only about providing social protection. It's also about having robust labor institutions in place and monitoring. It is about, you know, having decent work for parents so that they're paid well enough so that kids don't have to go out and do this abhorrent kind of work.
It is about - and Neal, you got to it earlier when you were talking about, you know, are employers taken to task if they hire children? Or are johns taken to task if they hire, you know, child prostitutes? You've got to have that capacity, and you've got to have the - you know - the investment in policing and - or in labor markets - institutions. So it is an integrated approach. And so your question is well put, Katie, and I think speaks to the heart of the approach that we are taking, in terms of this integrated and holistic approach.
CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. Are you seeing improvements?
Ms. STEWART: Oh, are we seeing improvement?
Ms. STEWART: Yeah. You're asking me - in terms of the data, we still continue to see a decline in the worst forms of child labor, Neal. But the decline is -it's not as robust as it was, say, between 2000 and 2004.
CONAN: When the economy was a little bit better.
Ms. STEWART: And we're concerned about, again - you know, with this recession, will that have an increasing impact?
Ms. STEWART: We're seeing an increase, however, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in boys age 15 to 17 in hazardous work. So we're following it extremely closely. And together, the world came - most - many countries in the Hague, and recommitted to eliminating child labor by 2016. Everybody can help with that, and I'd encourage listeners to do so in any way they can.
CONAN: Katie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
KATIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Jane Stewart, thank you very much for your time today.
Ms. STEWART: A pleasure. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Jane Stewart, special representative and director of the International Labour Organization's Office to the U.N., joined us from our bureau in New York.
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