World Day Spotlights Exploitative Child Labor

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By Julien Anseau, Regional Communications Manager for Asia, and Christine Ennulat
Posted on 6/1/2011

In Firozabad, India’s “Glass City,” many of Aarti’s classmates make bangles before and after school. “I can tell from the burn marks on their hands,” she says. “Someone losing an eye or getting hurt is common. Some friends wake up as early as 4:30 a.m. to work before school. Many have stopped coming to school.”

Aarti, her parents and three of her siblings. 
Aarti, in yellow, with her parents and three of her nine siblings. 

For a while, Aarti was one of those children who had dropped out of school to work full-time on bangles, the industry for which Firozabad is famous. Bangles and beads produced here are exported all over the world.

Walking around the hot and narrow streets of Firozabad, one breathes glass particles and dust. Most people’s homes have been turned into small-scale workshops to finish, smooth, decorate, paint and pack shiny bangles and beads. Most of the city’s people, including children, are entirely devoted to this work.

Firozabad is also infamous — as a center of exploitative child labor.

Children as young as 5 work to help support their families. They crouch in poorly lit rooms for hours, using solvents, glues, kerosene and various other dangerous chemicals and breathing toxic fumes, all for a meager wage of US$0.30 per 100 bangles. On Firozabad’s roads, it is also common to see children pushing carts laden with bangles.

Aarti dropped out of school to go to work when she was in fifth grade. “I never enjoyed making bangles — it was repetitive, and I was often tired and suffered from headaches,” she says, “but it helped improve my family’s income.”

Aarti’s experience is just one variation on a story that plays out again and again in developing countries worldwide. Every June 12 since 2002, the World Day Against Child Labor has highlighted the issue.

The International Labor Office of the U.N. estimates 215 million child laborers worldwide, 115 million of whom engage in hazardous work. The phrase “child labor” describes any work situation that harms children mentally, physically, socially or morally, and that impedes, interrupts or ends their education. Extreme forms include slavery, separation from family, exposure to serious hazards and worse.

In a sad irony, research has shown that entry into the work force before age 13 reduces children’s future earnings as adults by 13 to 20 percent. It’s a small step from there to the conclusion that child labor actually increases poverty.

ChildFund works with communities and families to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, says Lloyd McCormick, ChildFund’s global youth development and livelihood technical advisor. “We understand children may need to work at home or in the family business or farm, but that work shouldn’t jeopardize their well-being,” he adds. “Our work centers on helping families keep their children out of dangerous and exploitative situations — making sure they can get an education and enjoy being a child.”

The International Labor Office of the U.N. estimates 215 million child laborers worldwide, 115 million of whom engage in hazardous work.

Aarti’s stint in bangle work ended when she enrolled in ChildFund’s programs and was connected with a sponsor, which made it possible for her to return to school.

Now a bright-eyed 13-year-old in eighth grade, Aarti says, “I love school, and I enjoy learning new things. My favorite subject is Hindi. I love my teacher. She always supports and helps me, and encourages me to learn. I want to be like her when I grow up — I want to become a teacher.”

McCormick notes that ChildFund’s efforts to protect children from harmful work situations tend to focus not only on the child but also on the family. "For children under 15, we make every effort to address the families' need for children to work," he says. "For older youth, above 15, we help prepare them with the life and employment skills needed to have a productive, safe and healthy livelihood."

Shimla, Aarti’s mother, joined a ChildFund-supported self-help group, which she now leads. Over a few months, the 17 group members contributed small sums until they had saved enough to begin lending to members or others in the neighborhood for livelihood initiatives. “I have taken a loan to help my husband sell vegetables,” she says. “My husband and children no longer make bangles. We are all out of it now.”

Meanwhile, Aarti is happy for her freedom to study and play with her six sisters and three brothers. She also enjoys corresponding with her sponsor, who is from the U.S. “I don't know where that is, but I know it is many oceans and mountains away,” she says. The sponsor’s family visited Aarti some time ago. “I keep their photo and often write to them. They are like family to me.”