Casualties of Profit
Ending the scourge of child labor-in the US and
by Bernard Sanders, D-Vermont
Most of us would be horrified to support a business that exploits
children. But chances are you ~ may have done just that on your
last shopping trip.
Perhaps you splurged on a hand-crafted carpet, without knowing
it was made by a seven-year old from India, where children are
chained to looms for 12 hours a day. Maybe you just bought a soccer
ball for your son or daughter, without realizing five-year-old
hands inside a dark and silent factory in Pakistan produced your
gift. Even your more mundane purchases-a leather bag, a shirt,
a pair of jeans, or produce from the local grocery store-could
be the product of child labor.
Around the world today, some 250 million boys and girls between
the ages of five and 14 are exploited in hazardous working conditions,
according to the International Labor Organization. Children's
rights groups estimate that the US imports more than $100 million
in goods each year which are produced by bonded and indentured
children. This is outrageous.
The issue of the exploitation of child labor is not only a
moral issue, but also an economic issue that is having a profound
impact on US workers. As consumers, we should not be purchasing
products made by children who are held in virtual slavery-children
who can't go to school, who work horrendous hours each week, who
are beaten when they perform poorly on the job, and who are often
permanently maimed when they attempt to escape from their slavery.
But, equally important, we should not continue a trade policy
that forces US workers to compete against desperate and impoverished
people in countries such as China and Mexico, people who earn
as little as 15 or 20 cents an hour-whether those workers are
children or adults.
I have been working hard in the Congress to end the scourge
of abusive and exploitative child labor for a number of years.
Most recently, I was able to include $300,000 in this year's Omnibus
Appropriations bill to develop a model educational curriculum
addressing child labor issues in Vermont. This funding will go
specifically to the School for International Training (SIT) and
Brattleboro Union High School. This grant is a solid step in beginning
to educate our young people about the moral and economic horrors
of the exploitation of child labor.
For too long, the world has looked the other way as hundreds
of millions of children have been virtually enslaved in the pursuit
of greater profit. Now, however, Vermont has a unique opportunity
to pioneer a curriculum that exposes this problem to our young
people so that they will be able to combat it. Through an effective
program, we can start to show the next generation of leaders how
pervasive this problem is and what we can do to prevent it.
A lot of work is going to have to be done by SIT, Brattleboro
Union High School, and other educators in order to determine the
most effective use of this important grant. My personal hope is
that, at the end of the day, we will have involved large numbers
of students throughout the state in this project, and will have
done an effective job in teaching them how to play an active role
in our democracy. It's a good first step, and if we are successful
in Vermont, we will provide a model for students throughout the
country to develop similar programs.
Another important initiative, signed into law in 1997, was
the Sanders-Harkin Indentured Child Labor Import Ban, prohibiting
the importation into the US of products made by indentured child
servants. As documented by 60 Minutes II back in December, the
US Customs Service used this law to stem the flow of hand-rolled,
unfiltered cigarettes (known as "bidis") produced by
indentured child labor in India. In India alone, there are approximately
50 million children working in factories or fields for little
or no pay.
Bidis are an especially insidious product. They are made by
children in India, and purchased by children in the US. According
to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of US adolescents
between seventh and 12th grade have tried them. These cigarettes
are popular among US youth because they are sweetened with flavors
such as chocolate, strawberry, licorice, mango, and even bubble
gum, giving the impression that bidis are less dangerous than
other cigarettes. To the contrary, bidis contain higher levels
of nicotine and five times more tar than regular cigarettes. I
will be working with the Customs Service to keep bidis out of
While the US is increasing its commitment to ending abusive
and exploitative child labor around the world, today, in our own
country, the richest most powerful country in the world, instances
of child labor are growing. The estimated number of children between
ages 12 and 17 who work is 5.5 mil
lion, or 27 percent of the total number of children in this
age group, according to the Global March Against Child Labor.
To this figure must be added the many children under the age of
12 illegally employed in various activities-for example, in urban
garment manufacturing sweatshops, as street traders, and as seasonal
and migrant workers on large farms.
The practice of exploiting children in the US workplace saves
employers $155 million in wages. That's why I am co-sponsoring
the Young American Workers' Bill of Rights, introduced by Rep.
Tom Lantos from California. This bill brings our child labor laws
up to date and calls for increased minimum and maximum penalties
for child labor violators.
If you don't think that child labor is a problem in New England,
guess again. In January, the Labor Department fined Toys R Us
$200,000 for violating child labor laws. The violations involved
14- and 15-year-olds who stock shelves, operate cash registers,
and clean at 19 New England Toys R Us stores, most of them in
We know how bonded child workers are bought and sold like
cattle. We know about the horrendous working conditions that they
are forced to endure. We know about the violence that meets them
when they cannot work hard enough to satisfy their masters, or
when they try to escape their slavery. As we begin the 21st century,
we must make a firm commitment to eradicate child labor throughout
Bernard Sanders is Vermont's five-term congressman, and the
only Independent in the US House of Representatives.