“I have one single mission: Every child should be free to be a child.”
Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi proclaimed this ambitious mission in the new documentary, Kailash, which depicts the fight to end child labor through the Global March Against Child Labor and Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the organizations Satyarthi founded.
In 1994, 150 child labor advocates marched through the southern tip of India chanting, “No more tools in tiny hands. We want books, we want toys,” marking the beginning of a revolution to end child labor. Four years later, Satyarthi and other child labor advocates founded the Global March.
Tens of thousands of children in child labor have been rescued through organizations founded by Nobel winner Kailash Satyarthi. Courtesy: “Kailash”
“We were led by young people, many of whom were child laborers,” said Anjali Kochar, executive director of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. Kochar spoke at the U.S. Department of Labor, one of several locations in Washington, D.C., where the documentary was screened to commemorate 2018 World Day Against Child Labor on Tuesday.
“They demanded their right to childhood,” said Kochar, recalling the march. “They called for the elimination of child labor and for meaningful, quality education. It was truly electrifying.”
Satyarthi began rescuing child laborers in the 1980s. His first rescue attempt was unsuccessful because he was outgunned by human traffickers. Satyarthi then brought to court photos of the atrocities he saw when trying to rescue the children, and a judge then ordered they all be freed.
The more children rescued, the bigger the mission became until more than 200 activists, lawyers and social workers joined Satyarthi in the 1980s to form the BBA, an India-based organization that has rescued more than 80,000 child laborers. Mukti Ashram, the Delhi branch of BBA, provides shelter and education for liberated children.
Demand for Cheap Products Increases Demand for Child Labor
Satyarthi looked at the successes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and decided that a “global march” was best for bringing attention to a global problem. The increased demand for cheap products was leading to an increased demand in cheap labor, making abuse and wage theft common in supply chains, especially for women and children. Since The Global March Against Child Labor formed in 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed Convention 182 on elimination of the worst forms of child labor, child labor in homes was banned in India in 2006 and the South Asian March Against Child Trafficking took place in 2007, where 1 million people marched 3,000 miles to end forced labor.
Although the efforts of Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his efforts, and other global advocates decreased the number of child laborers from 260 million to 152 million in 20 years, there is still more work to be done. Of the 152 million child laborers, 73 million work in hazardous conditions. These children are between the ages of 5 and 17, spending their days in factories and fields instead of in school.
The film reveals the complexity of child labor, illustrating how poverty and education often underly child labor. Parents who are paid very little or are unemployed may need their children to work so their families can survive. Because of the lack of resources, impoverished parents are often uneducated and their children fall prey to traffickers promising work opportunities. The children are taken from their families and forced to work for months or years, escaping with burns and broken bones. This was the case for Sanjeet, who appeared in the film and was rescued by BBA. This young boy was found with dents in his face from hot powder blown by fans in a factory. He had not been allowed to go home in a year.
Acknowledging prior accomplishments as well as the work ahead, Satyarthi created the 100 Million Campaign in 2016, which seeks to mobilize 100 million young people to fight for 100 million child laborers. This program will not only benefit the children still suffering under forced labor but will provide a legacy so that future generations can continue to tackle this issue.
“We all have to work to globalize compassion,” says Satyarthi when discussing how movements make change. “Every child has the right to bread, education, love and play.”
On a warm, dusty day on the Deccan plateau in April 1994, I joined Kailash Satyarthi’s Bharat Yatra, (Indian Journey), a group of 150 child labor activists part-way through its march from the southern tip of India to the heart of New Delhi, where it would arrive five months later. I didn’t realize it then, but I was witnessing the prototype of the movement that Kailash would take to a global scale four years later, and result in the biggest single step forward in history in the cause to abolish child labor.
It was hard to visualize 24 years ago that these initial attempts to mobilize masses of people behind a broad social movement would build to this moment today—a 20th anniversary commemoration at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual Conference in Geneva of the Global March, which ushered in ILO Convention 182 aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
ILO conventions set a global standard for labor rights that UN member countries are expected to adopt and enforce. Not all countries are willing to do so. But Convention 182 is now the most ratified convention in ILO history, with 181 signatory countries. As one diplomatic observer in the early 1990s said to me, looking at the burgeoning activity in India, “Kailash has built a movement—now he needs to build an organization.”
Build one he did. The Global March Against Child Labour was formed 20 years ago specifically to mobilize people worldwide to lobby for adoption of Convention 182. And finally recognizing his decades-long campaign to abolish child labor, the Nobel Committee awarded Kailash the Peace Prize in 2014.
At the commemoration this week, attended by hundreds of delegates from governments, employers and trade unions, Kailash was joined by ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, representatives of workers’ and employers’ groups, and two very special guests: Basu Rai, a former child laborer who, as a 9-year-old, was one of the original marchers who came to Geneva 20 years ago, and Zulema Lopez, a former child farm worker in the United States, who is now earning a university student.
Opening the program, Ryder noted to Kailash, “I personally remember the moment, the incredible moment 20 years ago, when you led children from around the world into the ILC to press for Convention 182.” He pointed out that even though child labor has been reduced by tens of millions since that time, 152 million children are still working, with practically no reduction in the 5–11 year age range. Indeed, hazardous child labor for that age cohort has actually increased. With the number of children injured and killed each year in hazardous labor conditions, Ryder said, “If this were a war, we’d be talking a lot more about it.”
Basu, in an impassioned address, talked about how he was orphaned at 4, joined a street gang and became a child slave before being rescued by Kailash and his activists. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and climbing on the desks and raising the slogan, ‘No more tools for tiny hands, we want books, we want toys.’ My childhood was snatched away. I’m coming here today, but I’m still afraid. I’m still afraid—and I’m a father to a 2-month-old daughter—that the world is not safe for the children.”
Zulema told the assembly: “I was a third-generation farm worker family. I first went to work in the fields when I was 7. I missed school. It was normal for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, put on a T-shirt, and work for hours in the hot sun, my back aching from carrying 30 pounds of cucumbers.”
In winding up the event, Kailash reminisced, “I remember that day when I walked in with the core marchers of the Global March who were allowed to come into the ILO, which was the first time in history the ILO opened its doors to the most exploited and most vulnerable… We were marching from exploitation to education.”
While there has been progress, much work needs to be done to eliminate child labor, as envisioned by the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, by 2025.
“Child labor is not an issue that will be solved by someone else; it’s up to you personally,” said Kailash. “It’s urgent. The childhood of children today can’t wait. And you have to believe it’s possible. It’s personal, it’s urgent, it’s possible.”
Timothy Ryan is the Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour and the Asia Regional Director for the Solidarity Center.
Truckloads of children were sent to pick cotton during the Turkmenistan fall harvest, according to a new report by the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), an independent media and human rights organization. The children, along with tens of thousands of civil servants, including pregnant teachers, were forced to pick cotton for weeks in a government-led mass mobilization of forced labor that began August 15 and lasted through December.
In a secret order, “the local education department even sent a memo to the schools in [Ruhabat and Baharly] districts to organize the mobilization of children for the harvest during the fall break,” according to the report. ATN sources also reported a massive use of forced and child labor in several districts of Dashoguz, Lebap and Mary provinces.
“The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land”—public utility worker. Credit: ATN
A teacher told ATN that pregnant teachers showed their principal a doctor’s certificate to be excused from field work, but the principal forced them to go—and ramped up their cotton collection quota from 110 pounds a day to 132 pounds. Another source reports officials at institutions, like local schools, financially benefit from the use of forced labor.
A public utility service worker in Dashoguz province told ATN that if workers refused to pick cotton, they will lose their job. “The boss will happily hire someone else for your job and even get a bribe for it. Unemployment is so high in Dashoguz that bosses won’t have hard time finding your replacement.”
Although most of the cotton harvest takes place on government-run land, scores of cotton pickers also say they were forced to work in either private fields or lands leased long-term by wealthy landlords or high government officials. “The cotton harvest feels like serfdom because you go to work in a rich man’s land,” says the public utility worker.
Human Rights Abuses Rampant
The Turkmen government “tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression and religion,” according to Human Rights Watch. Gaspar Matalaev, an activist who provided photographs documenting child labor during Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest, was arrested in 2016 and is serving a three-year prison sentence on trumped-up fraud charges. He has reportedly been subjected to torture by electric current to force him to confess to false charges of minor fraud.
Turkmenistan remained in the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning the government does not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and is not making significant efforts to become compliant.
The Turkmenistan government “continued to use the forced labor of reportedly tens of thousands of its adult citizens in the harvest during the reporting period,” according to the report. “It actively dissuaded monitoring of the harvest by independent observers through harassment, detention, penalization, and, in some cases, physical abuse.”
In neighboring Uzbekistan, where 1 million public employees are forced to pick cotton each fall harvest, children also were forced into the fields this past fall. The government had stopped the practice in recent years following campaigns by international human rights organizations, low rankings in the US Trafficking in Persons Report and threats by the World Bank to curtail funding.
“Trade unions and NGOs must work together” to end child labor, asserted Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi as he summed up a two-day gathering of more than 40 child labor activist organizations from around the world in Seville, Spain. Participants at “Forum Spain-Americas: Civil Society for the Sustained Elimination of Child Labor” met last week to discuss United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which aims in part at the eradication of child labor.
Satyarthi, founder of the Global March Against Child Labor, a worldwide network of trade unions, civil society organizations and education associations working to end child labor, launched the organization 20 years ago to press for adoption of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
“The Global March started out as a movement, which became an organization,” said Solidarity Center Asia Region Director Tim Ryan. “You can identify an issue and create an organization, but you need a vision to create a movement.” Ryan, who serves as chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor, participated in a panel examining how the Global March’s international work over the years could inform renewed efforts to address child labor in the Western hemisphere.
Ending Child Labor, Ensuring Children Receive Quality Education
The connection of trade unions and civil society organizations in a close partnership has been a unique and important aspect from the inception of Global March, Ryan said. Currently, representatives from Education International, the global union federation of teachers, and trade union activists from Ghana and the United States are Global March Board members.
“It’s no surprise teachers’ unions around the world are part of the Global March,” Ryan said. “A key value underpinning the elimination of child labor has to be the opportunity for children to have a quality education.”
Satyarthi said that education philosophy around the world must be aimed at something greater than turning out consumers.
“Education that just produces makers and lubricators of the global economy is a disaster,” he said. But “there is no dearth of good people and good work who can strengthen our alliances with hope and resolve” to eliminate child labor with committed people and their organizations working for it.
The meeting, a joint initiative of the Spanish Andalusian Agency for International Development and the ILO to work together on strategies to eliminate child labor, sets the stage for the ILO Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labor meeting this week in Argentina.
Some 25 million people toiled in forced labor around the world in 2016, and 18 percent were children, according to two new reports by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation.
“Global Estimates of Child Labor” and “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery” estimate that overall, 40.3 million people are victims of “modern slavery,” which the report describes as including forced labor and forced marriage.
Far more women and girls experience forced labor, making up 58 percent—9.2 million—of the 16 million in forced labor in the private economy. Some 50 percent of women and men in forced labor also were in debt bondage, in which personal debt is used to forcibly obtain labor. This proportion rises above 70 percent for adults forced to work in agriculture, domestic work or manufacturing.
While forced labor occurs all around the world, it is most prevalent in Asia and the Pacific, where the proportion of those trapped in forced labor is four per a population of 1,000. The European and Central Asian region has the second highest proportion, with 3.6 people in forced labor per 1,000, followed by Africa (2.8), the Arab States (2.2) and the Americas (1.3).
152 Million Children Involved in Child Labor
According to the ILO report, children make up 18 percent of victims of forced labor exploitation, 7 percent of those in state-enforced forced labor, and 21 percent of victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Overall, the reports estimate that there are 152 million children involved in child labor globally, with 73 million of them in hazardous work that is dangerous to their health and safety. This overall figure represents a decline from 2012, part of a larger trend in lowering the amount of children involved in labor in the 21st century. However, this decline has slowed dramatically in recent years.
Many experts suggest the reports’ estimates could understate the extent of forced labor. Fiona David, executive director of Global Research at Walk Free told the Washington Post the estimate could be conservative because of the challenges of doing research in conflict areas like Syria or Nigeria.
The ILO reports include strategies for ending forced labor that center on achieving the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda and include studying root causes of modern slavery like debt bondage, and developing policies that specifically address the gender imbalances of modern slavery.
In combatting child labor, Solidarity Center works with the Global March Against Child Labor, a worldwide network dedicated to eradicating the practice, and is a member of the multi-member Child Labor Coalition.