Sacrificial lambs of globalization: child labor in the twenty-first century.

Author:Panjabi, Ranee Khooshie Lal

    The idea of progress has dominated global thinking for the past few centuries. Politically, progress has enshrined concepts of human rights and brought freedom and democracy to many parts of the world that had previously only known absolutism and autocracy. Economically, the notion of progress has knit the world via the pathways of globalization into an inter-dependent unit where people engage in an international division of labor involving all levels of manufacturing and service provision. The resulting growth of human-developed technology has shrunk the world in terms of communications and dissemination of knowledge on a scale never conceived before.

    With this development of a vast and powerful international market place there should have been a greater sharing of profits and the benefits. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Socially, globalization has brought greater comprehension of diversity and the necessity for tolerance of the infinite variety of cultures that flourish on this amazing planet. However, economic "progress" has been largely at the expense of the most vulnerable elements of almost every society. Those elements, the poor, the illiterate, and particularly the children of the poor have paid a terrible price so that we in the richer countries might enjoy an orgy of consumerism at reasonable prices. Our need to buy and consume, but always at very low prices, has required that food and manufactured goods be produced to sell inexpensively but still provide sufficient profit. One methodology to achieve this aim is to utilize either very cheap labor--hence the export of manufacturing from the West to the developing world--or worse, much worse, to use slavery and child labor, and pay almost nothing to those who make our goods and harvest our food.

    This research demonstrates that child labor prevails across the planet, in both rich and poor countries. Although it may be decreasing in some parts of the world, that is no comfort to those children caught in its brutal grip. This research has also verified the extent of international concern about this terrible practice, which robs the childhood of thousands.. The Economist stated that of "all the alleged sins of globalization, child labour has been among the most scorned." (1) Far from the promise of progress for those victims of globalization, this new internationalized marketplace has resuscitated the horrors of the past, such as slavery, human trafficking, and child labor--widely perceived as one of the most insidious of all crimes--against the most vulnerable and defenseless members of every society.

    To be fair, we have progressed to the point of internationally outlawing child labor in a number of high-sounding and well-meaning legal instruments. Unfortunately, most countries only pay lip service to these instruments, while turning a blind eye to the prevalence of a practice that dooms thousands of children around the world to a life of back-breaking labor, brutal mutilation, physical and sexual torture, and emotional and psychological trauma. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has deemed the "economic exploitation of children ... an insult to humanity." (2) Any search for the reason why, in a world so dedicated to the concept of progress, such egregious human rights violations persist, only leads to the realization that children "are employed because they are easier to exploit and they can be paid less," if they are paid at all. (3)

    This article seeks to emphasize the nature of the problem, the immense scope of child labor internationally, and to remind us that we already have verbal commitments and laws. What we need is a greater will to promote their implementation, and rid our world of this terrible crime that brutalizes so many children. Space constraints restrict this article to dealing specifically with two manifestations of child labor: first, agriculture, which involves most of the children who are forced to work; and second, the labor roles of children in warfare as child soldiers and as sex slaves, porters and spies. Extensive research has clarified the idea that child labor cannot be eradicated in a vacuum which disregards societal breakdown caused by poverty, environmental degradation, civil strife, and economic turmoil. An analysis and assessment of the situation has yielded some ideas whereby the developed world can act multilaterally and meaningfully to make a difference in the developing world's poorest countries, many found in Africa. With a new American administration, and a president committed and dedicated to the politics of change, a new look at multilateral solutions might provide answers that can make a viable and long-term difference. With no oblique pun intended, it is obvious that internationally child labor is a 'motherhood' issue.

    The child labor practices that prevail across the planet, even in the progressive democracies of the Western world, have few defenders, and a vast number of detractors. If the ultimate goal is still international progress, then child labor is a self-defeating practice in terms of the future of our planet. We cannot go on exploiting children and basing our economies, even partially, on the ill-gotten fruits of child labor. If all of us can determine individually, nationally, and internationally not to allow this practice to prevail; we will secure a decent future for this entire planet. This is a major and significant issue of human rights. Any assumptions we have of being 'progressive' in this twenty-first century are eradicated by our acceptance of a form of ruthless exploitation that brutalizes the most helpless in our world to enhance our own creature comforts. The International Labour Organization has stated that the "effective abolition of child labour is one of the most urgent challenges of our time." (4) If we fail in this endeavor to rid the world of this heinous crime, we doom the future of the entire planet. Rarely has true progress--idealistic progress, progress that is meaningful and valuable--been grounded in exploitation, acquiescence, and indifference to the fate of children.


    It has been correctly emphasized that "It]here is no universally accepted definition of 'child labor.' Varying definitions of the term are used by international organizations, non-governmental organizations, trade unions and other interest groups. Writers and speakers don't always specify what definition they are using, and that often leads to confusion." (5)

    National, cultural, and societal norms dictate the parameters that define "childhood" as a distinct time in the life of a human being. Childhood is thereby distinguished from adulthood, which can occur at different times, depending on gender, culture, social value systems, and laws of different societies. In a bid to provide a degree of uniformity, while still giving the nod to national divergence on this grounding issue, the United Nations has set the parameter for childhood at age eighteen, "unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." (6) States ratifying the ILO's Minimum Age Convention are required to specify a minimum working age. (7) The results have determined that countries in the developing world set the parameter at fourteen years, while developed countries tend toward age fifteen. (8)

    Definitional discussions about child labor point to the necessity to distinguish between labor that provides a child with a useful set of skills for earning a living in adulthood, a type of education, and labor that includes assisting the family in household chores or farm work, geared to familial survival and economic progress. According to author and Director for the Elimination of Child Labour at the International Labour Organization, Guy Thijs:

    participation in certain types of light work, such as helping parents care for the home and family for short periods in the day, or teenagers working for a few hours before or after school or during holidays to earn pocket money, is considered to be part of growing up for boys and girls and a means of acquiring basic survival and practical skills. (9) Although a very broad definition would encompass any work performed by children, it is universally recognized that some forms of work involving family chores have a positive role to play in child development. (10) As John J. Tierney Jr. has explained, "the type of child labor that has become the focus of international concern is the abusive, unhealthy, commercial exploitation of children that interferes with their education." (11) The problems of child labor relate to exploitative labor, which is usually unpaid and unrecompensed and deprives children of any meaningful future and degrades them in every way imaginable. (12) The International Labour Organization has estimated that mentally, emotionally, and physically degrading child labor affects one in six children in the world today. (13) The complexity of defining such work has been admitted by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF); which explained in its 1997 Report on the State of the World's Children that such work has to be gauged along a linear continuum, comprising destructive work at one extreme and beneficial work at the opposite side. (14) Between these polar opposites exists a range of work typologies that "need not negatively affect a child's development." (15)

    Unfortunately, whether the particular child labor is a constructive preparation for adulthood or the worst form of exploitation is usually a subjective assessment, often based on cultural and societal norms, which can defeat the best intentions of international laws and covenants. The framers of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child were quite aware of this dilemma, and of the fact that severe exploitation could be passed off as an apprenticeship for adulthood. (16) Similarly, a child's contribution to working...

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