Free the Children

An interview with Craig Kielburger

Multinational Monitor - January/February 1997


Craig Kielburger is the founder of Free the Children, a student-driven initiative to end child servitude. He is a ninth grade student from Mary Ward School in Toronto, Ontario.


Multinational Monitor: How did you become involved in working on this issue?

Craig Kielburger: Over a year ago, I read in the paper about the murder of Iqbal Masih, the Pakistani child labor activist. The fact that we were both the same age caught my attention right away. I read that at the age of four he was working 12 hours a day, six days a week at a carpet factory, and that by age 10 he began speaking out against child labor. I contrasted his life with mine and I thought if he could do so much, that I should try to do something too.

I began to read up on child labor, which I thought was eliminated. I thought it was basically a nineteenth century kind of thing that didn't exist anymore. I learned that about 200 million children work throughout the world. I started speaking about child labor at my school and eventually founded Free The Children, which is rapidly expanding and now has chapters in Canada, the United States and in Switzerland.


MM: How were you exposed to the issue of child labor?

Kielburger: After Free the Children started, the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor suggested that Free the Children send a delegation to a Third World country to investigate child labor practices. At the same time, a friend, Alam Rahman, who is a student at the University of Toronto and is of Bangladesh descent, was going to Bangladesh. It worked out that Alam, who speaks Banglai, and I went on a seven-week tour of five countries - Nepal, India, Pakistan, Thailand and Bangladesh. My parents paid for my trip.

I spoke to many children over there. You can read about child labor, but to really understand it, you have to look into their eyes and see where they are working. I went to a brick kiln where children made bricks all day. I tried it, just to see how hard it was. I only did it a little while and was exhausted. I couldn't imagine children working at this all day.


MM: Under what conditions do they work?

Kielburger: Horrible. I met children with arthritis in their hands, children with their hands severely cut. One girl I met worked at a metals factory; she showed me her severely burned arms and legs, which happened when she spilled some hot metals on herself. I met another eight-year-old girl who worked in a recycling factory in India, separating syringes from used needles. No protective clothing whatsoever. She never heard of AIDS; wore no gloves or shoes. I saw her walk barefoot over needles strewn on the factory floor. After a while, my guide suddenly dragged me away. I couldn't understand why until he told me outside that another child worker there warned him that if the factory master saw this girl talking with me, he would beat her.

I met two boys in India who worked in a carpet factory; Nageshwer, age 14 and Monhan, age nine. They both began work at the carpet factory at the age of seven. Nageshwer showed me scars all over his body-hands, arms, legs, and even on his throat where he was branded with a hot iron when he helped his younger brother and a friend escape from the bondage. But he was unsuccessful and was caught by the loom owner. This was a type of punishment for him. Because of the branding on his throat, he could not speak for several months. But his first words were a song about how not to give up hope for freedom.

Monhan told the story of two other young boys who tried to escape from the same factory. They were caught by the loom owner and beaten and knifed to death in front of all the other children who were forced to watch this as a symbol of what would happen to them if they tried to escape. The bodies were taken and thrown into a lake. After a raid on this factory was conducted freeing the children, the parents of the murdered boys asked where were their children. The loom owner simply said they had run away into the forest. He was never prosecuted for his crime.

Monhan, who was freed in the carpet raid, told me how he was beaten when he cried for his mother. So he spoke to his mother in dreams at night. And I had the opportunity to accompany some of these children back to their homes, and I saw Monhan finally meet and speak with his mother. And the one thing I think I will never for get was when we were driving down a road taking these children home, and our jeep got stuck halfway across a lake. Everyone just piled out of the jeep and started pushing the jeep. When we finally pushed it out of the lake, we were sopping wet. It was very cold and many of us has fallen into the water-and when we all piled back into the jeep, the children just started singing about how they were free and they were going home again.


MM: How much are they paid ?

Kielburger: At the brick kiln, child workers are paid 30 cents for every 100 bricks they make. Even that money doesn't go too far because they buy their food from the factory store.


MM: Why do they work?

Kielburger: In some cases parents send them to work off a debt when the parents need a loan.

In some cases, children are tricked into bondage. For example, there was a raid on a carpet factory while I was in Asia where 23 children were freed. They had been tricked into bondage by the loom owner who promised them a fair wage and safe working conditions. And they were promised that they would be taught a skill to help support themselves in the future. They ended up working 15 hours a day; from seven in the morning until ten at night-all for the equivalent of around 20 cents a day, which they were forced to exchange for one meal of rice.


MM: Some people in developing countries say people in richer countries should not criticize child labor. They say people in richer countries do not understand the cultural context in which child labor takes place, and that rich countries permitted and relied on child labor in similar states of development. How do you respond to these arguments?

Kielburger: I'm all for children taking on responsibilities, but I draw the line on exploitation and oppression of children. Child labor physically, morally, socially and intellectually stunts children.


MM: What sort of products do child laborers make?

Kielburger: Because a company uses subcontracting, it is extremely difficult to know what products are made with child labor. In many cases, the companies do not even know. Perhaps the company doesn't want to know. If companies truly wanted to know, they could find out by putting clauses in their trading agreements and by basically checking the books-checking for things, like, so many people working so many hours, so many products produced. And then asking, is this feasible? Does this all work out? If not, then where are these extra products coming from? Perhaps something is behind it, maybe it is child labor. Also, the company can do a lot of surprise checks, where they come in and see the working conditions. So that when the company arrives they don't find a clean floor with a banner saying "welcome."

It is unbelievable the long list of products made with child labor-from carpets to medical equipment. If you can tell that this particular carpet was made by children, then people can choose not to buy that product. That's why you need a label on each product saying no child labor was used making this product. I know of many products, but you can never tell which product is made by children. For example, one shoe may have been made with child labor and not another shoe. You can't tell. That's the difficulty and that's why a labeling system has to be introduced, so that consumers can have a choice.

But product labeling is not the only way we can take action against child labor. We also have to push for education, protection and the rights of the child. Although the labeling system has to come about, they will not affect children who work as domestics, children who do not produce products for export, children in agriculture, children who work on the streets and in the sex trades. All this also has to be addressed, as well.


MM: If consumers in industrialized countries boycott those products, do they hurt the exporting countries which need foreign exchange?

Kielburger: Well, I don't think it necessarily hurts the countries. One thing that is argued is that it may hurt the child. What has to happen is when you pull the children out of the factory you have to replace them with the adults-the relatives of the children. These relatives can form trade unions and fight for better working conditions and higher wages. That's why factory owners want children -they are cheap! Quite often, having children working brings down adult wages. So, when you put the adult in they receive a higher wage then the child, and they can better support the family, and the child can go to school; breaking the cycle of poverty.


MM: What kinds of activities have you under taken to draw attention to the issue of child labor.

Kielburger: We've done letter writing campaigns and petitions to governments and businesses asking governments to live up to their promises that were made at the 1990 World Summit on Children. We are pressuring world leaders to make education and protection of children a priority. You have to address this internationally because you can no longer look at a single country because basically countries don't exist anymore. It's the world level you are looking at, and it's a global scale. This problem is a global problem.


MM: How successful have your efforts been?

Kielburger: We actually feel we have been quite successful. Our Minister of External Affairs in Canada just passed a resolution which says that Canadians who go overseas and molest children -engage in prostitution with a child overseas- can be prosecuted under Canadian law. The Canadian government also has allocated $700,000 to the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor. And the government is sending officials overseas, to Germany, to look at how Rugmark-the labeling system of carpets made with out child labor-works and bring it into Canada. But, mainly the success has been the number of young people who are getting involved-the number of young people who realize the power that they have and that they can take that power and bring about change.

Life and death in Third World