Meet Ali - and Others Just Like Him

Countries like the US should ban imports produced by forced child labor

A POSTER on the wall of my home office haunts me. It displays a large color photograph of a dark-skinned Asian boy, about eight years old, kneeling on bare knees and looking out from behind an iron gate. His forlorn black eyes stare at me, pleading. Through his half-open lips, he is making an appeal that I cannot hear. He wants to be free to go home.

I know that not from the wordless poster but from the testimony of a friend of mine, a Bangladeshi woman who took the picture. One afternoon, while walking through an industrial area of the capital city, Dhaka, my friend Rosaline Costa, a staff member of Catholic Charities in Bangladesh, caught sight of a little boy peering out from behind the locked gate of a garment factory.

Kneeling there in ragged clothes, apparently on the verge of tears, he was asking to go home. Instead, the nearby security guard ordered the boy to return to his workplace. Rosaline snapped the lad's picture when he lingered a few moments before rising and walking back into the factory. I had the boy's photo enlarged and mounted four years ago. By now, I feel close enough to him to call him Ali, though we have never met. Ali kneels there as a troubling reminder of a reality all too easy to ignore.

Throughout the developing world, and especially in Asia, many millions of little boys and girls are working for people like me. They are busy from morning till late at night, often seven days a week, making clothes, shoes, socks, locks, dolls, toys, soccer balls, and countless other products for us. For me, Ali's position - on his knees behind bars - has become a metaphor for those girls and boys. The physical and psychological cruelties inflicted on them are unspeakable. In India nearly 300,000 youngsters under 13 work in bondage, or under other circumstances that approximate slavery, as they weave luxurious carpets for living rooms in the United States and Europe.

As a chief justice of the Supreme Court of India has testified, the carpet children are often disciplined by being beaten up, branded with red-hot iron rods, and even hung from trees upside down. It is the fear of such punishment that keeps children as young as 6 working long hours, six or seven days a week.

The global economy should offer children an escape from lives of forced labor. Instead, it is drawing more and more of them into servitude. The trend is a "human tragedy," says a recent US Labor Department report titled "By the Sweat and Toil of Children: the Use of Child Labor in American Imports."

The report lists industries in 19 countries involved in this tragedy - eight in Asia (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand), six in Africa (Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Morocco, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe), four in Latin America (Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico), and one in Europe (Portugal). Like slavery in former times, today's system of forced labor by the young has articulate defenders. "They need the work," a Bangladeshi manager explained to me. It is a rationale repeated in many circles, even by some economists. They claim there is no alternative for boys and girls like Ali because they are poor, malnourished, and illiterate. No matter that, even after years on the job, they usually remain poor, malnourished, and illiterate.

Still, the argument that poor children "need the work" has a powerful appeal. But it also has highly dangerous implications. Every continent, even North America, has many millions of poor families with young children who are not gainfully employed. These girls and boys form huge pools of labor that could be tapped to do unskilled and semi-skilled work now performed by adults. In permissive environments, preteen recruits would need strong disciplining to acquire the necessary work habits, but experience in Bangladesh and India shows that the young can perform many productive tasks, and that it is possible to overcome short attention spans and to redirect a child's desire to play.

So the supply of potential workers is there. So is the market. In the present competitive international economy, both businesses and consumers are seeking cheaper and cheaper sources of goods, no matter who makes them. The dynamics of this trend are sweeping much of Asia, and the logic that underpins it can thrust millions more children elsewhere into the global labor force, doing work now performed by their elders.

The scenario sounds grim, even exaggerated. But the process is simply the law of supply and demand in action, globally. One tragic consequence of holding it sacred is to squelch proposals for international rules to prohibit trade in goods made by children like Ali. The US government now ignores that "law" in many ways, for example, by enforcing bans on trade in goods such as elephant tusks and pirated Hollywood movies. It should do likewise for goods made by children.

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