Child Labor & Trafficking
“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you
spare yourself the sight.” –Albert Schweitzer
Child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade, comprise an “industry” that huge numbers of children fall victim to each year, disappearing into an underground world. The conditions these children are forced into essentially amount to nothing more than slavery, two hundred years after legislation was passed which made the practice illegal. And this is slavery at its ugliest, most evil core, slavery of the most vulnerable among us: children.
Photo courtesy of the United Nations
Child laborers and prostitutes exist in such large numbers for a very simple, yet horrific, reason: they are cheap commodities. They can be paid the least, exploited the most, and due to the largely invisible status of the most vulnerable children, have virtually no power against their oppressors. Children cost less than cattle; a cow or buffalo costs an average 20,000 rupees, but a child can be bought and traded like an animal for 500 to 2,000 rupees.
While factories in China and Central America that exploit children are often in the news, India is the largest example of a country plagued by this human rights abuse, with the highest number of child laborers in the world. Official estimates of these children vary greatly, often by definition of who such children are. The UNICEF website reports 12.6 million children engaged in hazardous occupations, but this figure is according to the official 2001 Census; because more than half of all children born in India are never registered, it may safely be assumed that this number is extremely low. However, UNICEF’s 2006 State of the World’s Children briefing states that an estimated 171 million children, of which 73 million are under ten years old – are working in hazardous conditions, missing out on an education and facing serious risks of injury, illness and death.
Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch
The Global March Against Child Labor says as many as 100 million children are believed to be working, “many under conditions akin to slavery,” with an estimated fifteen million in bonded servitude. Bonded labor or servitude is defined as child labor in which children are indentured in order to pay off a debt. Few sources of credit or bank loans exist for those living in poverty qualify. The earnings of the bonded children are less than the interest on the loans, ensuring that they will typically never be able to pay off the debt. Thus, they become in effect a slave of the “employer.”
Often families themselves place children in such conditions when they feel they have no other choice. Many uneducated parents themselves fall prey to promises by recruiters that their children will do light work, go to school, be exposed to more opportunities in the city, and send money back home. They’re even told that the child will have better marriage possibilities. Living in poor rural villages without many prospects, these families believe the child will have a better future.
In Orissa, a young woman came to the Miracle Foundation home for children and unwed mothers run by Dr. Manjeet Pardesi. She was pregnant with her landlord’s baby, who had intimidated and coerced the girl into a physical relationship. “The physical intimacy was not done due to love but due to fear,” Manjeet wrote me in an email. “In other words, you can term this as rape.” However, once she had been taken into the home and provided care and medical attention, she related the full story. She had been caring for her young brother and sister in their remote village in Jharkhand state, who were still being “held captive” by the landlord and made to do a variety of work for him. Due to their financial circumstances the small family owed money to the landlord and the siblings left behind were working for this debt.
Miracle Foundation staff members Manish, Prabha and Susan – whom I met on my recent trip to India – began a period of constant communication with the landlord on behalf of the children. Manjeet told me that “initially he was reluctant to part with the children,” until he was told that the matter would be reported to the police. Finally, he agreed to return the children from their life of bondage in exchange for the amount of money owed him. Manjeet and the staff went to bring the four-year-old and eight-year-old back to the Miracle Foundation home to live with their elder sister, paying the price of the debt: $25 US dollars.