INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL INVESTING: Summer 2001
SOCIAL TOPICS (Archive): INTERNATIONAL SOCIALLY RESPONSIVE INVESTING
Child Labor: Not a Minor Issue
Published, Summer 2001
“There are roughly as many child laborers in the world today as there are citizens of the United States,” announced Senator Tom Harkin at the recent Congressional Forum on Child Labor. Sad, but true. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that some 250 million children aged 5-14 are victims of child labor around the world, half of them working full time. Of that number, an estimated 60 million children are engaged in the worst forms of child labor including slave and/or bonded labor, prostitution, and military combat situations.
Exploitative child labor is a violation of internationally accepted labor and human rights standards. The ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) has been in effect for close to 30 years and, in November 2000, the Worst Forms of Child Labour ILO Convention (No. 182) was ratified. This Convention seeks to liberate children from the most exploitative forms of child labor, such as slavery, debt bondage, and prostitution. Here in the U.S., the Sanders Amendment to the Trade Act of 1930 prohibits the importation of products made with “forced or indentured labor.” The Trade and Development Act of 2000 includes a provision that denies U.S. trade preferences to countries that fail to meet and effectively enforce ILO Convention 182 standards.
Despite a global body of regulations to abolish exploitative child labor, it still persists in the U.S. and abroad.
Child labor on U.S. farms. Many labor experts attest that children are among a steadily growing group of young field hands and are among the least visible and most vulnerable workers in the U.S. The United Farm Workers union estimates that there are 800,000 child farmworkers in the United States. (1) Currently, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows child farmworkers in the U.S. to work in agriculture at a younger age, for much longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than minors working in non-agricultural jobs. Consequently, 40 percent of the work-related fatalities that young people suffer are in agriculture. This reflects the fact that agriculture has been classified as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country (along with mining and logging, in which no children are employed in the U.S.).(2)
Child labor on African cocoa plantations. A recent BBC documentary shed light on the use of slave labor, particularly child slave labor, on cocoa plantations in several African nations. The ILO estimates that in the year 2000, there were 378,000 economically active children in Côte d’Ivoire alone, representing nearly one in five Ivoirians in the 10-14 year age group. The BBC claims that 90 percent of cocoa plantations in cocoa-exporting African nations use forced labor, suggesting that a significant percentage of this forced labor is children. The situation persists even though last summer the governments of countries such as the Côte d’Ivoire and Mali publicly signed an accord to put an end to child trafficking and child slavery.
Child labor in Indian carpet looms. The hand-knotted carpet industry has been exposed as a major perpetrator of child labor abuse. Child welfare organizations estimate that at least 500,000 children in South Asia, often working as indentured or slave laborers, produce many of the hand-knotted carpets found in American and European homes and businesses. Studies estimate that children working under inhumane conditions make two-thirds of all hand-woven carpets. Children work long hours for years in confined, dimly lit workshops. Many develop respiratory illnesses, spinal deformities, and cuts and wounds from sharp tools. Not surprisingly, the United States is the largest importer of hand-woven carpets.
Beyond the enormous social cost of child labor, there is also a substantial economic cost. In the United States, studies reveal that only 55 percent of U.S. child farmworkers finish high school—the average level of education achieved for adult farmworkers is the fifth grade. (3) Surely, this is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Whether in U.S. fields or in India’s carpet-belt, many child laborers, lacking enforced, legal protection and other options such as education, are destined to a lifetime of low-wage labor that can perpetuate the cycle of poverty through generations. Clearly, loss of education and its future benefits due to child labor is a global concern.
Investors Can Be Part of the Solution
Juan Somavia, Director General of the International Labour Organization, in his recent call to action to abolish child slavery stated that such activism “is moving into fair trade initiatives and socially responsible investment funds.”(4) Walden has utilized shareholder leverage to confront exploitative child labor conditions since the mid-1990s. We have pursued dialogue and collaboration with a range of companies and social action groups. For example, Walden was the first investment firm to join the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), a national forum of more than 50 member organizations and federal agencies that works to combat child labor abuses through education and promotion of initiatives and legislation. (See www.stopchildlabor.org.)
Walden is in contact with global food companies to learn more about their vendor standards as they relate to child laborers on U.S. farms and African cocoa plantations. Our concern extends to children employed in other areas of the food industry such as poultry, seafood and meat processing, and canning of fruit and vegetables. We spoke recently with Hershey’s and discussed its involvement in the work of the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, a U.S. trade association that is exploring model practices for growing cocoa. Cadbury Schweppes told us about its Ethical Trading Working Group, which reports to its Board. Cadbury is also an active member of a steering group looking at child labor issues, which was organized by the international trade association the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance in response to the cocoa plantation documentary mentioned above. A few days after it contacted Walden, Cadbury issued a public statement announcing its support for an international effort to stamp out child slavery on African cocoa plantations.
Walden is also an active member of the Rugmark Foundation, which has an established label licensing program for carpet manufacturers and exporters in return for their commitment to independent monitoring of facilities and financial support of Rugmark schools. Critics agree that independent monitoring of production sites is the most effective way to hold overseas producers accountable to the standards outlined in company codes of conduct. What makes Rugmark particularly exceptional is that it also works to reverse abusive child labor practices by taking children away from carpet looms, rehabilitating them, and sponsoring their education. (See www.rugmark.org.)
Walden is in contact with several retailers regarding carpet sales, among them Federated Department Stores, which informed us that it is having ongoing meetings with its carpet vendors to consider endorsing Rugmark. In addition, Target Corporation told us that the limited number of stores that carry hand-woven carpets carry Rugmark-labeled carpets. In fact, one of its carpet vendors is on the Rugmark board.
Spotlight on Child Labor
While exploitative child labor issues play a part in vendor standards, labor rights and sweatshops campaigns, Walden believes that the plight of children merits special attention. Clearly, most consumers would not consciously support a market for goods produced by the sweat and toil of children, but consumers need more information, which monitoring, reporting, and labeling can provide. Walden is actively working to increase the profile of the child labor issue among investment and social action groups, promote public awareness of child labor abuses and its use overseas, and confront companies where these abuses are known.
1. Fingers to the Bone. Human Rights Watch. June 2000.
2. Accident Facts. National Safety Council. 1989.
3. Migrant Education: A Consolidated View. Interstate Migrant Education Council. 1987.
4. “What It Takes to Stop Slavery.” The New York Times. 4/22/01.
The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India
As part of Walden’s work to raise awareness about the issue of child labor, we hosted in March the Boston screening of “The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India,” the internationally acclaimed HBO/Cinemax documentary about exploitative child labor practices in the hand-made carpet industry in India. Our guest speaker was Nina Smith, Director of the Rugmark Foundation USA, which was highlighted in the documentary. Advocates believe that Rugmark-labeled carpets provide the best guarantee to consumers that children did not make the carpets and that contributions are being made to educate former child carpet weavers.
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