National Consumers League

Worker Rights

Worker Rights

Biggest child labor stories of 2011

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Young boy working in a fieldFor those fighting for the cause of child labor, 2011 was a year of highs and lows, bringing some much needed attention to serious child labor problems in the supply chains of some of the world’s largest companies, but also seeing a disturbing move in a few states to roll back long-standing child labor protections and a much-publicized attack on child labor laws by a presidential candidate. The Child Labor Coalition has compiled a list of 2011's biggest stories.

 

The year’s 10 biggest stories, according to the CLC, included (in no particular order):

1) Apple hit with allegations that its iPhones and other electronic gadgets are manufactured in Chinese factories by child laborers. In February, Apple announced that it had found 91 children worked at its suppliers in 2010—a nine-fold increase from the previous year. The company also acknowledged that 137 workers had been poisoned by the chemical, n-hexane, at a supplier’s manufacturing facility and that less than a third of the facilities it audited were complying with Apple’s code on working hours. In the year prior to December 2010, Apple had sales of over $65 billion.

2) Victoria’s hidden “secret”: children help harvest the cotton that goes into garments. Bloomberg Markets Magazine revealed in December that some of the cotton retail giant Victoria’s Secret uses is harvested by young children in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The piece profiled 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, who works on a cotton farm, where she said she is routinely beaten by the owner. By hand, Clarisse performs work that many farmers use a plow and oxen to perform and often works in 100-plus degree heat and eats just one meal a day. Some days she gets no food. Many of the children like Clarisse are considered “foster children” and receive no wages— most do not attend school. Limited Brand, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, has annual sales in excess of $5 billion.

3) U.S. DOL issues proposed child labor rules to protect children on farms from dangerous work. For the first time in four decades, the Department of Labor has issued proposed rules to prohibit work on farms that is dangerous for teen employees. The regulations would ban kids from driving tractors and other machinery, work from heights greater than six feet, work in grain facilities, and other dangerous activities. Despite a far-reaching “parental exemption” that would exempt the sons and daughters of farmers from the proposed protections, many members of the farm community and many farm-related groups attacked the proposed regulations as an assault on the family farm that would make it hard to train the next generation of farmers. DOL received more than 18,000 comments about the regulations. CLC members remain strong supporters of the proposed protections, which we believe will save 50-100 teen workers over the next 10 years.

4) Human Rights Watch and NBC News draw much needed attention to child labor in gold mining. Artisanal mining for gold is a common but brutal and dangerous form of child labor for West African children. In early December, the NBC News show Rock Center featured a chilling report about child gold miners in Mali, Africa. As many as 20,000 kids are estimated to work in artisanal mines, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which found that kids as young as six years old “dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush and pan ore.” As if this backbreaking labor wasn’t bad enough, many children also work with toxic mercury to separate the gold from the ore. Many child miners are not paid wages for their labor, receiving bags of dirt which may or may not have any gold dust in them. Many children work instead of going to school.

5) Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich calls child labor laws “stupid” and urges U.S. to save money by hiring school children to clean school bathrooms. Republican Newt Gingrich made headlines this November when he suggested that poor kids in struggling schools be given jobs as janitors. Gingrich suggested that poor children typically lack the example of a working parent and that cleaning school bathrooms would help develop a strong work ethic. Gingrich has previously made headlines for having spent $750,000 on jewelry at Tiffany’s, raising questions about his ability to empathize with the struggling poor.

6) Advocates draw attention to the forced labor in Uzbekistan to harvest cotton by getting a dictator’s daughter ousted from Fashion Week. It’s not always easy to get the attention of one of the world’s most brutal dictators, but that’s what the advocacy community did during New York City’s Fashion Week in September 2011, when several CLC members and the Cotton Advocacy Network successfully got Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimov ousted from the prestigious fashion show. A designer and a Uzbek diplomat, Gulnara is the daughter of Uzbekistan’s brutal leader Islam Karimov. Each fall, Uzbek school children and their teachers are forced to leave their classrooms and perform arduous hand-harvesting of cotton for up to two months. The children, whose numbers are estimated to range from several hundred thousand to almost two million, receive little or no pay. Recently, the European Union voted not to ease import rules for Uzbek cotton, hoping to force the regime to allow independent investigators to survey child labor in the country.

7) Nestlé agrees to hire a third-party monitor to examine child labor in its supply chain. For a decade now, the world has known that cocoa in West Africa is often harvested by children under difficult and dangerous conditions. That cocoa is purchased by the world’s leading chocolate companies and eventually becomes the chocolate treats that we all love to eat. For years, the advocacy community has pushed the chocolate industry to do more to combat this intractable problem. This year, Nestlé agreed to hire the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit monitoring group, to look for child labor and other problems in the Côte d’Ivoire.

8) 60 Minutes and “The Harvest” film bring much needed attention to the problem of child labor in American agriculture. Children as young as 12—and sometimes even younger—toil in the fields beside their migrant farmworker parents, harvesting fruits and vegetables. The work—legal under U.S. child labor law—is often back-breaking and sometimes dangerous. “The Harvest,” a brilliant and poignant film by director Roman Romano and producers Shine Global, followed the lives of three migrant children as they struggled to overcome exhausting work, missed educational opportunities, and social disruption.

9) State attempts to roll back child labor laws. Conservative legislators in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Maine worked to reduce child labor protections in 2011. The Maine legislature increased the number of hours teens can work during the school week from 20 to 24 and allowed them to work till 11 p.m. at night. In Wisconsin, legislators pushed through changes—without a public hearing or debate—that removed restrictions on the total hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work. A bill to weaken protections in Missouri went down to defeat but legislators essentially got their way by defunding the state labor investigation team.

10) President Obama issues waivers for countries that use child soldiers. For the second year in a row, the President decided to waive congressionally mandated restrictions on giving military assistance to Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Yemen because they continue to use children in their armed forces. Issued in the name of “national security,” the waivers will result in thousands of children—some of them very young—being forced into armed conflict, including many young girls forced into sexual slavery.