A: What do I do? I write articles about child labor - Iíve been doing this since 1995.
I work as an assistant director of a non-profit organization called Child Labor and the Global Village: Photography for Social Change that has a team of eleven photographers who are going to go to eleven countries, including the United States, perhaps a few more than eleven countries, to document child labor in different parts of the world.
Well, there are many ways to raise awareness of child labor, and this is only one. I am basically a writer, and working with images - with photographs - gets the word out in a different way, sometimes more effectively than just working with words. When you see a photograph of a child in circumstances that probably strike you as bad, letís say a child in a garbage dump, or a young woman making bricks, working very hard, you can see that itís hard work for that child.
A picture may be able to stand in for a 1,000 words, but you donít necessarily know which 1,000 words it will stand in for in your head, or my head, or anyone elseís head. Pictures and words can be used effectively together, and I believe they should be. But people who are oriented towards images tend to see more value in just seeing the photograph - without the words. And people who are more word-oriented tend to see less value in a photograph because they canít really tell whatís going on there. They donít know where that kidís from - why is that child in that situation - what is a solution for that child. They name questions that can really only be answered with words. And they see less value in using photographs.
So I think that words and images together reach more people than just images on the one hand, or words on the other hand.
A: I have been reporting on child labor since 1995, and I have interviewed many child laborers. But, as far as the photography project goes - I already have taken the photographs from one essay, the essay from India by Brian Finke, and I took those images back to the location where they were taken in 1998. And I learned a lot from that exercise. The child who was at the center of that photo essay, Sankar, he is by now around 17 or 18, heís already married and his wife had a baby, and the babyís died, and heís been in and out of the non-profit organization that we profiled, which runs a non-formal school where he goes to school. Heís been in and out of that, and while I was there, he decided to go back in, and go into a training program. Well, what it demonstrated to me, as a word person, is that the images told only a short period of his life, and the struggles that he faced to confront all the challenges in his life, the challenge of poverty, but also the challenge of kind of rootlessness, and indecision and lack of direction, which many adolescents face, and many people generally, all of those added in to make a story that I could tell as a writer, but those photographs only told part of.
There was one other thing that you should know about that photo essay. On our website, there is a photograph of a boy sweeping beneath the feet of a train passenger. Thatís the image that got Julia Dean started in pulling together the team of photographers. She was traveling in India and she got in a train, and she saw a little boy get on the train, and sweep under passengersí feet and beg for change, and then get off at one of the train stations and get on a train going in the opposite direction. And that really struck her, even though she had traveled in many developing countries for many years. So that photograph, for us, means a lot.
However, for the children in India where that photograph was taken, thereís a whole other meaning, in that the children saw the photograph and they immediately knew who that boy was, and he was there. In fact, he was one of the brightest boys in that whole group of children who were living and working at the train station, or living around the train station and spending a lot of time there. He was a volunteer in a child-line organization which has grown up over India. What he did was, when he saw other children being beaten by other kids or by adults or somehow getting in trouble, he would pick up a phone and call a number, the child-line number, that, like 911 here, would get him to a volunteer who would then contact the police or the appropriate organization. He was very active in that organization and looking out for other kids. And yet while I was there in India, I was at the office at the government organization that started the school that I mentioned earlier. While I was at their office, they got a distress call; there was a boy in trouble at the train station. Sadly, what had occurred was this boy, Bapi, had his clothing caught in the stairs of a train car as he was getting off the car, and he was dragged to his death. And that demonstrated - even more than the photographs did - the risk, the immediate danger, of spending a lot of time at a train station, even if youíre making a living in a relatively low-stress, or physically not difficult job, which Bapi, in the photographs, was doing: he was sweeping under the passengersí seats. Well thatís relatively low stress; itís not that difficult or dangerous. But being at the train station and running in and out among the trains can cause children to lose limbs, and in Bapiís case, he lost his life.
So, again, thatís a case where I can tell a story, in words, which the photographs donít tell. But itís far more effective if I can show the photographs and then tell the story.
When I speak to classes, anywhere from grade school to college level, I try to make my presentation appropriate to the group, and if itís a group of photographers, I actually say less, I challenge them on the images, more than if itís just a general audience.
Hereís how I come down on that issue: Children need to survive, and if nobody is doing what needs to be done to help them to survive, I think it is unethical to remove them from whatever work theyíre doing, even if itís dangerous.
If itís dangerous, however, and you or I know itís dangerous - letís say you see a child in Bangladesh, you see a child working as a ticket taker for a bus - and many of them get killed in the traffic, and get run over, lose limbs, and so on, then I think itís up to you, as a human being, to take some action, to help children in general. You may not be able to help that child individually. Thatís my answer to you as an individual.
As a society, it is incumbent on the society to protect children. And the question is, how you get from the ethical requirements to protect children, the theory, to actuality. And even in the United States, we donít protect children one hundred percent. We have an obligation as a group and as individuals to do what we know how to do, and to do what we figure out how to do to protect children.
Children do lots of different kinds of work in the course of any given day. Iím sure that youíve helped youíre parents do the dishes, or vacuum, or help in the garden. If you hired somebody to do that work, that person would be paid and that personís wage would be calculated in the national account. Gross domestic product, for example, would reflect that. That person would be providing a service, and that service would have a dollar value. So that is work, actually. But what distinguishes that type of work from "not okay" work, or child labor that is harmful? Thereís some child labor thatís neutral. You could say that this is child labor and that itís neutral. This is what makes child labor somewhat a tricky thing. Some people donít even like to use the phrase "child labor." I like to make the distinction between whatís "okay work" and whatís "not okay work." All the work above is "okay work" because you are supervised, they (the tasks) are light work, and they arenít in themselves harmful, and they donít get in the way of your education. They also donít put you in situations where you arenít necessarily harmed but you could be harmed (potential harm).
"Not okay work" is work that is harmful, mining for example. You breathe the dust, and that is associated with lung diseases, and if youíre mining underground, the mine could collapse and kill you. Those are examples of immediate harm and potential harm, respectively. Another way in which mining is not okay is if you are spending all of your time mining instead of going to school. But letís say you go to school part-time, and you mine. Thatís still not okay because it is both hazardous and harmful. Washing dishes and vacuuming is relatively light, I canít imagine any particular harm that could come of this kind of work.
When a child is working in a job thatís harmful, or hazardous, or takes the child out of education, if you look at the circumstances of each child, you can see many reasons for that. One is poverty, but there are others as well. And you can look at poverty pretty widely. A family may not have enough income to pay for the absolute basics - food and shelter. Or the family can have enough income to pay for the absolute basics, but canít pay for something expensive, for example, the expense of the illness of a parent. Letís say the parent dies. If thereís no safety net for that child, nothing for the family to fall back on, no other income source, then children often fall into child labor, whether the parent decides that the child should work, or the child decided that the child should work. Hereís another example. If a family is dysfunctional, meaning if a parent or parents are addicted to some substance or gambling, then all the familiesí money goes into that addiction. Or if parents physically abuse a child, oftentimes those children leave home for their own survival. And this is as true in the United States as it is in Brazil, and India, and around the world. Itís a very common pattern. And once a child leaves home, what else is the child going to do? Thereís no safety net for the child, so the child works.
There are a whole variety of reasons for child labor. Poverty is the biggest one, but you have to look at poverty from all angles.
If you look at demographic trends for the next 20 years, youíll see that by 2020, the vast majority of people entering the workforce will have grown up in less-developed countries. If you were to stop all economic growth, and social growth, and the growth of education, if you were to stop it all at todayís level, then a huge proportion of those people would not have an education, and that concerns the entire world.
But there are ways to mediate this. Peopleís lives donít end at the age of 18, and neither does their ability to learn. And so, if young people grow up and they still havenít been educated, and if todayís society can teach those people the skills that they need to survive and thrive in the economy of the future, then there is some hope that children who are working today and not getting education will soon be very productive as citizens and as workers, be very solid people, and have education. They still can learn to read as a adults, or learn some other skill as adults, so itís not a lost cause. But it will demand some work from society to recognize that people who grow up with less education should have a way to make up for this deficit after they become adults.
Child soldiers were not really considered child laborers for most of the 1980s. But, when the Convention of the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1989, and in 1999, when Convention 182, a convention on the worst forms of child labor, was adopted, with enormous international support, child soldiers have been considered both child workers and children working in the worst possible kind of work.
A number of things can be done to help child soldiers. As an international society, people can work towards making the use of children as soldiers unacceptable in any circumstance.
Now, why would that make a difference to a crazy person who thinks that itís okay to give a gun to a nine-year-old and tell that person to shoot somebody? How do you reach somebody who thinks its okay to recruit a young person as a soldier? Some we wonít be able to reach, but in most cases, anti-government movements, whether in Sri Lanka, or Liberia, or Colombia, and other countries where the use of child soldiers has been documented, most of those anti-government organizations want to eventually either come to power or join the government in some way, and slowly delegitimize the use of child soldiers. The adults in those organizations, the adults who authorize the recruitment of children to act as soldiers, will see that if they continue to recruit child soldiers, theyíll never, ever, ever be accepted on the world stage as a legitimate leader. And most anti-government groups eventually want to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the world. And oftentimes, itís just an individual who decides, "Well you know, now itís time for me to grow up and become Prime Minister, now that I have power let me be the head of this region."
Delegitimizing the use of child soldiers is something that may work for some leaders. There are other things you can do. There are international organizations CAN YOU PROVIDE A LINK TO ONE OR TWO? that are working, even during conflicts, to delegitimize the use of child soldiers, and their message to armed forces using child soldiers is, "We canít solve the problems over which youíre fighting, but at least donít use children." And in that case, some children can be rescued from fighting, and the next job is to rehabilitate them, thatís very difficult, because some of those children have seen horrible, horrible things, and have been cut of from a normal childhood - normal in any sense - in their own society or normal in the way you and I would think of a childhood. And recovering the psychological equilibrium, learning a skill, learning how to survive in normal society, are all difficult, beyond which, if the child has caused tremendous harm to society, itís difficult for the society to re-accept that child, and re-integrate that child. Has that child really changed? Does the child know how to act in society? There are some countries doing a reasonably good job; Mozambique is, for example. But each child is an individual, and so if you have 200,000 people under the age of 18 who are recognized as child soldiers around the world, thatís 200,000 children who need an enormous amount of help.
There are many solutions at many levels. If you look at the international level, for example, there are now many standards that affect children. The three most important are: the Conventions on the Rights of the Child, International Labor Organization Convention 138, and Convention 182. Theyíre different, and they serve somewhat different purposes.
There are a couple of things you can do.
One is you can join an organization that is working to help children. Some are run by adults, some are run by children. Thereís one called "Free the Children" that was started by a twelve-year-old. But there are others, which are run by adults, which would be happy for your support. The reason I mention "Free the Children" is because it is very sensitive to the question of how to mobilize young people to make a difference.
Another would be to invite a speaker, or presenter, to come to your school, and raise consciousness in your own school, not just to support "Free the Children," for example, but to support the building of a school somewhere. Thatís quite a good thing to do.
Another is to learn more about the difficult questions involved with addressing child labor.
So there are many things you can do. Some will feel like youíre making a difference to individual children, like youíre one or two voices, and others will feel like youíre part of a whole chorus of voices, and that chorus will make a difference.
I think that for young people, one of the best things to do is to raise money for a school somewhere. I also think that communicating with other young people both about what youíve learned and about what they know and what theyíve learned is very important. You should talk to other people about what work is and whatís okay work and whatís not okay work.
There is exploitative child labor in the United States as well. We have lots of laws, and they are by and large enforced, but there are kids out there who are doing jobs that are not okay by international standards.