Kailash Satyarthi, a Solidarity Center ally, won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his lifelong efforts to end child labor. He began this work much earlier, in 1986 in Jharkand province—one of India’s poorest regions at the time, a place where child labor was common across a variety of industries.
Since then, Satyarthi has freed more than 80,000 children. His movement, the Global March Against Child Labor, has given rise to an international network of grassroots activists spread across multiple issue areas, all combatting child exploitation. In 2015, Satyarthi delivered a petition to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanding that the abolition of child labor be made a Sustainable Development Goal. More than 550,000 people around the world signed it, ensuring that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7 against child labor exists today.
Recently, Satyarthi was in Washington, D.C., to address congressional lawmakers on the situation of child labor globally. The Solidarity Center spoke with him about his Foundation’s work and the role of the labor movement in combating child exploitation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been fighting child exploitation since the 1980s. How has child labor changed in this time?
Kailash Satyarthi Credit: Global March Against Child Labor
Satyarthi: The world has grown rapidly, but despite technological advancements and accumulating vast global wealth, we have not been able to safeguard our children’s freedom. Today, 168 million languish in labor while 5.5 million are enslaved. Two hundred and thirty million children are caught in conflict-prone environments. Approximately 21 million children today have been displaced and face poverty, violence and inhumane conditions. Globalization has presented new challenges: increased cyber-crime and violence against women and children perpetrated online.
But the internet has made activism more sustainable. People are more inclined to support this fight because of increased awareness and ease of access. With the advent of technology, we have been able to make significant progress. I believe if the power of the internet and young people are channeled properly, we will be able to bring justice into the lives of many children.
What role does the labor movement play in the fight against child labor?
Satyarthi: To fully realize the SDGs, the fulfillment and protection of the rights of children is central. Trade unions are indispensable to this mission in two ways.
First, while workers in developed nations often receive their fair and just share, their counterparts in poor nations or emerging economies are denied what is theirs by right. This creates formidable challenges, like struggling to meet daily nutrition requirements. Poor laborers then seek another pair of working hands; in most cases, it is their child’s. A strong trade union can deliver the promise of decent work and income to families and so protect the development of these children.
Second, while 168 million children labor globally, 200 million adults are unemployed. Labor unions can help organize legal employment for these adults, as there is clearly no dearth of jobs. There are no easy solutions, but we know by experience that with the strength and resilience of labor unions, we can reach many who are voiceless working in illegitimate parallel economies.
As you noted, stable, well-paying jobs are hard to find for workers of all ages. What is the relationship between the ongoing flexibilization of work and the prevalence of child labor?
Satyarthi: Unfortunately, the concept of a fixed job is being wiped out by the relentless pressures of globalization while the movement of labor remains tightly restricted. Until the 1980s, in a country like the United States, people expected to work in a factory or office, in semi-skilled or skilled jobs until retirement. That is no longer true. It has been replaced by a concept of labor which takes us back, in some ways, to the 19th century when workers lacked job security. In this situation, it’s difficult to send children to schools and colleges. Rather, children end up working to help supplement uncertain family incomes.
What can be done to ensure that children, especially those in rural areas, are protected?
Satyarthi: Traditionally, the prevalence of child labor in farms has been widespread, meaning from children helping their families to bonded labor. Today, in relatively poor countries like India, where 50 percent of the population depends on agriculture for a livelihood, the most common form of child labor is found in farms. Until recently, it was rare to find a functional school in rural India. Some children were forced to walk over 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) to attend schools where teacher absenteeism was rampant. Here, government intervention is necessary. Education is a fundamental right and a public good and cannot be left at the mercy of market forces and private players. We have seen welfare schemes that guarantee employment to poor rural Indians and free meals to children attending school lead to a dramatic improvement in school enrollment. Much more needs to be done.
Over your career, you’ve used many strategies to fight child labor. What initiatives stand out to you as you look back on your career?
Satyarthi: During the first phase of my fight in the 1980s, the world remained ignorant as 250 million children labored globally. In the South Asian carpet industry alone, the number of child slaves working as carpet weavers was slightly over a million. Despite conducting many on-the-ground raid and rescue operations, we were not making desirable progress.
In 1995, I started discussions with carpet manufacturers, middlemen, exporters, NGOs in India and elsewhere, and leading carpet importers in Germany and the United States. This became the inspiration behind GoodWeave. The idea was to eradicate child labor in the carpet manufacturing industry with well-placed interventions in the supply and demand chains. I believed that after sparking the will for change, the industry could help social development by disrupting the circle of poverty, illiteracy, poor health and illegal employment.
What do you say to skeptics of GoodWeave and other consumer-based approaches to promoting human rights?
Satyarthi: GoodWeave effected a decline in child labor in the carpet industries, from over a million in the 1990s to less than 200,000 today. The most remarkable fact is that there was no decline in rug exports. Optimism among stakeholders brought about a remarkable change channeled through the power and reach of the corporate sector. If corporate and civil society can learn from our experiences with consumer-based human rights advocacy, then we can usher in a new era of globalization.
What about arguments that socially progressive policies, like compulsory universal primary education or a living wage, place an unfair economic burden on developing countries?
Satyarthi: The positive effect of placing children at the heart of policy and action is evident. If all students in low income countries acquired basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, equivalent to a 12 percent cut in world poverty. Moreover, an investment of one dollar in the eradication of child labor gives you the return of $10 to $15 in 10 years. The same applies to investment in education: Every additional year of schooling a young person receives increases their average future earnings by 10 percent, and can boost countries’ average annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth by 0.37 percent.
So, I humbly appeal to the naysayers to focus on what is measurable. Child labor never did any family or any child any good. It has to go.
A deadly fire in a Peruvian warehouse has exposed forced and child labor and exploitive working conditions in the country’s vast informal economy. Four workers, one just 15 years old, who were locked into storage containers that doubled as work spaces are missing and presumed dead.
The blaze also injured at least 15 people, according to news reports. It took more than 500 firefighters five days to extinguish the flames.
On Thursday, June 22, the fire broke out in Nicolini Gallery, a building used for retail and manufacturing, located in the Las Malvinas area of Lima, Peru’s capital. Crammed with formal and informal businesses, the building included a fifth “floor” where metal shipping containers, ostensibly for storage, were used by JPEG SAC company as a workshop to produce counterfeit light bulbs. JPEG SAC employees included workers under 16 years old, who were not registered with the labor authorities.
The General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) said that workers were killed ”not by mistake, happenstance, destiny or bad luck,” but rather they were victims of an “exploitive model that privileges profit by any means possible.”
Government officials called working conditions inhumane and slavelike.
“One of the victims called his mother to ask her to take care of his 21-day-old baby, knowing he would not make it out alive,” said Samantha Tate, Solidarity Center Peru country program director. “While it is not clear what started the fire, the building’s safety risks had been reported and it had been ordered closed. And it’s clear that these deaths were entirely preventable.”
The day before, more than 400 labor inspectors and assistant labor inspectors went out on a national strike to call for the strengthening of the National Superintendence of Labor Inspections, known as SUNAFIL. Among their strike demands, the labor inspectors called for an increase in the budget for the Labor Inspectorate to ensure proper protection of labor rights in the 14 regions where it currently operates and to open inspectorates in the 15 regions where there currently are none. Additionally, inspectors call for their employer to respect their collective bargaining agreement, and judicial decisions that would provide a bonus for inspections. The Solidarity Center works with SUNAFIL and the two labor inspectors’ unions to train workers about how labor inspections can help achieve stronger enforcement of worker rights.
The Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion and SUNAFIL have come under scrutiny for their decision to halt a program to inspect small informal enterprises, like those found in Nicolini. On June 27, Minister of Labor Alfonso Grados testified before the congressional labor committee about the government’s role and responsibility in preventing tragedies like this one. The International Labor Organization’s office for the Andean region decried the use of forced labor in Peru, calling for all parties to abandon their indifference and join the fight to end all unacceptable forms of work in Peru and around the world.
“The labor inspectors and the young men and women working at JPEG SAC, while worlds apart in terms of education and life opportunities, are connected in the web of common humanity. When one group improves their conditions, they will be able to help the other group come out of darkness, out of danger and into the light,” said Tate. “Once we begin to recognize and act upon our connectedness, and make policies and budget decisions oriented by this respect for human life, then, and only then, will we know that there will be no more Nicolini tragedies.”
More than 200,000 workers toil in slavery-like conditions similar to the victims of the Nicolini fire, without labor rights or the information that would help them defend their rights. Seventy percent of Peruvian workers labor in the informal sector, most without contracts, social benefits, family-supporting wages or health and safety training and protection.
Uzbek human rights defender Elena Urlaeva was released from a psychiatric hospital in Tashkent yesterday where she was imprisoned for 23 days with neither her consent nor a court order to forcibly treat her, according to the Cotton Campaign. Urlaeva’s release follows an international campaign spearheaded by the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.
Urlaeva was detained and beaten by Uzbekistan police the day before she was due to meet with representatives from the International Labor Organization (ILO), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the World Bank to discuss state-led forced labor in Uzbekistan.
Urlaeva Repeatedly Detained for Documenting Forced Labor
Urlaeva has documented forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields for the past 16 years, and has repeatedly been arrested, beaten and imprisoned by Uzbek officials. Last year, she was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for more than a month and arrested five times as she spoke with people forced by the government to labor in the country’s cotton fields. She was physically assaulted during the subsequent interrogation. In 2015, Urlaeva was arrested, beaten and forced to injest sedatives, and police confiscated her camera, notebook and information sheet on ILO labor rights conventions.
“A number of times I was put into a psychiatry ward,” says Urlaeva in a video released last November. “They did their best to show to the international community that human rights activists are crazy and they should not be listened to.”
Child Labor Growing in Uzbekistan Cotton Fields
Each fall harvest, some 1 million teachers, medical professionals and others are forced to toil in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. If they do not participate, they must pay for a replacement worker or lose their jobs. Children also are forced to pick cotton, according to a preliminarily report by the Uzbek-German Forum, reversing a move away from use of child labor in 2013 and 2014.
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties from the World Bank and other financial institutions for not ending the practice. Rather than change, the government seeks to cover it up.
Urlaeva has been credited with helping significantly reduce child labor in cotton fields, and this year was among human rights defenders in Uzbekistan to receive the International Labor Rights Forum 2016 Labor Rights Defenders Award.
More than 168 million children labor around the world, most denied an education and condemned to a cycle of poverty. The sheer number of child laborers underscores the need for reform in the many industries that employ child labor.
Reducing and eliminating child labor requires a focus on decent work for adults. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sonia Mistry
Reducing and eliminating child labor requires a focus on decent work for adults. In industries that regularly exploit workers—including not only brick kilns but also garment factories and palm oil plantations—improving wages and reducing daily production quotas make it easier for workers to provide for their families and enroll their children in schools. Trade unions and collective bargaining have helped workers around the world achieve these kinds of reforms.
In many South Asian countries, thousands of children labor in brick kilns under hazardous conditions. Child laborers, who are rarely given proper safety equipment, are particularly vulnerable to serious burns, cuts and other injuries while shaping bricks from wet clay, facing the searing heat from a kiln’s open fire and carrying stacks of finished bricks on their heads.
Entire families sometimes become bonded after borrowing money from someone such as a brick kiln owner. They then work to repay the loan but often are unable to pay off their debt, even over many years, because their wages are so low. The children and adult workers often cannot even leave the kiln and find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Children forced to work are unable to attend school, which severely limits their opportunities later in life.
Better Brick Nepal Tackles Roots of Child Labor
In Nepal, where more than 2 million children age 14 and younger are at work, the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI)’s program Better Brick Nepal (BBN) is helping to reduce child labor and improve working conditions in brick kilns. In a recent roundtable presentation at Humanity United in Washington, D.C., BBN leaders, joined by representatives from several international worker rights organizations, explained how their work brings together a variety of stakeholders from throughout the brick industry.
BBN, which gets input from labor unions, and its many partners, are using economic incentives to reduce brick kilns’ reliance on child labor. BBN instructs brick kiln owners on best practices for protecting worker rights and offers technical assistance in exchange. As employers improve safety and cut bonded labor and child labor out of the equation, BBN helps them update their facilities and boost their productivity.
Market-based incentives are also key to the Solidarity Center’s Decent Work Brick Kiln-Framework in Pakistan, where we joined with allies in the country to develop an economic incentive-based model in which brick kiln employers ensure their facilities meet decent work standards.
“Changing the Narrative” of Safety Inspections
BBN’s reach in Nepal has had a “huge expansion,” says GFI’s Nepal Country Director Homraj Acharya, from five brick kilns to 40 in just three years, and with many more kilns on a “wait list.”
Acharya estimates that BBN has reached more than 1,300 children laboring in brick kilns, providing them with the opportunity to attend school and escape “generations of marginalization.”
BBN works in close partnership with many international organizations, including Goodweave International and Humanity United.
Acharya believes the devastating earthquake in 2015 played a major role in increasing BBN’s influence. Not only did rebuilding efforts provide incentives for brick kilns to increase their productivity through BBN’s program, he says, but the collective humanitarian experience inspired people to demand reform and embrace socially responsible industry.
As Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry writes, development and aid efforts to reconstruct Nepal should “support the rebuilding of Nepali communities by addressing the root causes of the exploitative labor migration cycle.
“This means creating decent jobs at home, and paying workers a living wage under safe conditions to rebuild their villages and their cities. Reconstruction contracts should go to companies that meet a high bar for labor standards—and comply with the International Labor Organization’s core conventions, including the right to form unions.”
“We are changing the narrative,” says Acharya. “Originally brick kilns didn’t want to see [inspectors]. Now they are saying, ‘We are willing to change and contribute to society.’”
More than 80 countries have demonstrated they are “upholding their commitments to abolish forced labor and the worst forms of child labor,” according to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, in the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report released today.
More than 168 million children are toiling under harsh conditions, with more than half of them—85 million—engaged in hazardous work such as mining and construction, which puts their health and safety at risk. The report finds that 16 countries—half of them in Latin America and the Caribbean—made “significant advancements” in combatting child labor. Sixty-eight other countries made “moderate advancements,” including 30 in sub-Saharan Africa and 16 in Asia and the Pacific.
Fifteen countries made “no advancements” in the fight against child labor or were even “complicit in forced child labor,” among them Eritrea, South Sudan, Swaziland and Uzbekistan.
The report, issued annually by the U.S. Department of Labor, evaluated the efforts of nearly 140 countries to eradicate child labor and forced labor through implementing and enforcing laws, increasing labor inspection efforts and creating social programs to assist vulnerable children.
The report is available in a downloadable app, Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking around the World.
27 New Industries Implicated in Child Labor
Also released today, the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor found child labor and forced labor in supply chains for 139 different goods in 75 countries. Some 27 new industries have been implicated since the 2014 list, including the fishing industry in Indonesia and the silk industry in Uzbekistan.
The garment industry in Jordan, on the other hand, was removed from the list, after investigations showed a significant reduction in forced labor in the industry.
The list reveals how child labor contributes to the global supply chains that produce everyday goods—from sugarcane to bricks, coffee to tobacco, diamonds to gold, and electronics, carpets, clothing and footwear.
Eliminating Child Labor Part of UN’s Decent Work Goal
Both reports explain their findings in the context of the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious project to eliminate poverty and increase global prosperity. Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth calls for the eradication of forced labor, human trafficking and child labor in all its forms by 2025.
“Conscious capitalism recognizes that by working collaboratively, governments, businesses, workers, and civil society can do well by doing good,” says Perez.
The “Worst Forms of Child Labor” report is required under the 2000 Trade and Development Act (TDA), and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor was first published in 2008, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Both acts aim to promote global economic growth and build strong international trade partnerships that hinge upon the reduction of child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.