Vol 2, No 12       

child at window

Child Labor,
Slavery, and
Crimes of

by Susan Barber
The source of the following article has asked that her name be withheld.

Q: You have come forward to talk about child labor from the perspective of an American consumer and a mother. How does child labor affect you and yours?

A: When I buy a Hallowe'en costume for my children, or shoes, or a Mickey Mouse bookbag, I can be assured that I'm supporting child labor. I didn't always know this. But knowing it doesn't mean that I've completely stopped doing it, either.

It's a hard line to walk. I live in an American small town. My kids watch TV and go to movies. They listen to pop music and read popular books. They go to public school and they inevitably reflect the values of their community as well as those of their family. They are All-Americans in that sense.

How would I explain to my six-year-old that I can't buy him that backpack with his favorite cartoon character because a small child lives in virtual captivity, forced to work sixteen-hour days, in order to provide "affordable accessories" to American children. I don't want him to know about this. Sometimes, I wish I didn't know.

Q: When did you become aware of the nature of child labor.

A: It happened one weekend when I was at San Francisco State University, presenting a lecture to a group of teachers.

The presenter after me had just returned from South America, where she had managed to get inside one of these child labor factories. It was, she told us, more like a prison. She worked "undercover" in that factory for maybe two weeks, secretly videotaping what went on there. She just barely escaped with the footage.

She showed us this footage. I was so appalled. Layers of the reality I had been conditioned to accept were stripped away. My comfortable ignorance was gone.

I have never stopped mourning that loss. Tears well up for me every time I think of it. Those kinds of images never really leave your mind.

In this so-called factory — it was really more of a concentration camp — women and children were making children's toys and accessories, all decorated with those all-too-familiar cartoon characters. The workers were malnourished, overworked, and abused.

And the workers were imprisoned there. They could not escape their fate.

Disney's official position, like that of Nike, Wal-Mart, and others of their kind, is that they do not now nor have they ever supported child labor, forced labor, or any unfair business practices.

I wish I could believe that. I wish I could believe that no human heart could ever condone the conditions I saw on that video. I wish I could ever forget the desperate, lost look in the eyes of a little girl who was being hit repeatedly because she was working too slowly. I was forever changed.

The disclosure of this brutality in the daily lives of children on this planet became a fact that I could no longer hide from myself.

Q: What can we do about it?

A: What to do? Now, there's the question.

Once, there was a boycott, and I participated. I threw out everything decorated with those little cartoon characters — much to my children's dismay.

I remember wanting to kill my TV, knowing the pain and terror that had gone into its manufacture. I put the TV into the garage. But after a few months, my husband brought it back to where it continues to sit upon its living-room altar. And so it is.

I am angry and sad about what I know. I feel betrayed by my own childhood love of Disney. I feel betrayed by the world at large. But most of all, I feel powerless. How can I avoid buying the products supported by child labor without making my children feel culturally deprived?

How can I avoid the crime of participation without hurting my own children?

Q: Are you saying that your children would not understand or cooperate?

A: No. I'm saying that I cannot even ask this of them.

I'm conscious, aware, and caring. I teach my children about equality and brotherhood. I remind them of the sacredness, beauty, and wonder of all life.

I don't allow my young children to watch violent TV shows, play violent games, own toy weapons, or play "war." I explain my values to them and how these values may contradict those held by the community.

But how do I tell a three-year-old that she can't have a Winnie The Pooh shirt because a little child was forced to sew a hundred of those one day before she would be allowed to eat? How do I tell a nine-year-old boy that we can't buy a fishing pole at Wal-Mart because it represents an evil so great that he would be indelibly traumatized just by knowing of it?

I do want my children to possess a social conscience. I try to present them with information that's appropriate. But how can I reveal to them at such a young age the true brutality of the world they live in?

When they're old enough, and I'm still not clear on when that is, then I'll tell them. I'll have to. But I want them to grow up feeling that the world is safe and loving. And, at least in 3D reality, the truth contradicts that worldview.

I want to add that child labor is only the tip of the iceberg. There are actually, if Kevin Bales is to be believed, twenty-seven million slaves in today's world: people existing as human chattel, in bondage, "enslaved by violence and held against their wills for purposes of exploitation."

Q: Can you speak more to this issue of slavery.

A: It's all found in Kevin Bales's book Disposable People; New Slavery in the Global Economy.[1] Reading that book, I learned that the appalling conditions of child labor are only a small part of what's going on in the international corporate world.

Again, Bales reports that there are at least twenty-seven million people — many of them children — currently enslaved around the world. And although everyday citizens are unaware of this slavery, he says, our government and big business do know what's going on, and systematically deny and ignore it.

Most of the slavery involves children, women, and people of color: the same groups that have always been ignored and abused.

And Bales's statistics don't include things like the sneaker or soccer-ball factories in Indonesia or Vietnam where workers earn only twenty cents a day — those little stories that slip into our newspapers from time to time. Bales isn't talking about slave wages. He's talking about actual slavery, bondage enforced by violence.

He speaks of young African female slaves, half-starved and tortured, in all the world's major cities — Paris, New York, Los Angeles. He describes little children living in captivity in India and Pakistan, working unbearable jobs all day every day for no pay at all. He reports on the sex slaves of Thailand, who are picked up, beaten, and raped by the police if they try to escape, then returned to the brothels, where they are beaten and raped some more.

The horror of slavery, says Kevin Bales, is "not confined to history."

It is possible, Bales writes, that slave labor is responsible for the shoes on your feet or your daily consumption of sugar, but it goes beyond even that. The products of forced labor filter quietly into a broad spectrum of daily Western life.

"They made the bricks for the factory that made the TV you watch. In Brazil, slaves made the charcoal that tempered the steel that made the springs in your car and the blade on your lawnmower. . . . Slaves, including children, keep your costs low and returns on your investments high."

Q: Is there anything more you'd like to say?

A: Just that I don't have the answer. But I don't have my head buried in the sand, either. I think we all have to realize that these things are going on, and keep on asking, "What can we do? How can we protect the children?"


  1. Disposable People; New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales, University of California Press; ISBN: 0520224639 (July 2000).

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