Human Rights for Workers: Special Campaigns

'Free the Children'

A 13-year-old Canadian, Craig Kielburger, has launched a children's crusade against child slavery. It's called Free the Children, headquartered in his home in Thornhill, Ontario. Among his many recent public speaking engagements was one on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 29, when he addressed the Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Consumer Choice and Corporate Responsibility. He illustrated his words with pictures of child slavery taken during his recent seven-week visit to South Asia. That explains several references in his testimony, reprinted here.

When speaking about the global economy, or worker rights, many people will come forth with facts and statistics. We must remember that often we are talking about working children, children with real hopes and real dreams. These children have the same basic rights and are no different from the young people here, in the United States.

An estimated one million children are working as carpet weavers in the Indian subcontinent. They work up to 20 hours a day for pennies a day. These [pointing to a photograph] are children who were rescued from a carpet raid while I was in Asia. They were tricked into bondage by a factory owner who had promised them that they would learn a trade and have a fair wage.

They were locked up and forced to work 15 hours a day for 20 cents a day, which they had to return to their master in exchange for one bowl of rice and watery day [a gruel]. This is Moonilow [again pointing to a photograph]. He told me how the master would beat him when he cried for his mother, so he spoke to her in his dreams at night.

Last year, the United States imported 146 million dollars worth of carpets from the same country where these children work in slave-like conditions.

These [again a photo] are children who work in the brick kilns. They work from dawn to dusk, seven days a week making bricks. They do not go to school or play or do any of the things which your children do. Most of these children are working as bonded laborers to pay of the debts of their parents or grandparents. A child must make 100 bricks to earn about 30 cents, which is then exchanged for food.

This boy was hurt in a fireworks' explosion where he worked. He is one of the lucky children. Many of his friends died in the same explosion. Many more were scarred for life. Explosions frequently occur in fireworks' factories because the children are working with dangerous chemicals, with few safety precautions. These two water buckets serve to put out fires. Yet, when we checked, there was no water in them.

These are the faces of children who work in match and firework factories. How many of them will be killed making the fireworks imported into the United States this year?

And the list goes on--children in dangerous glass and metal factories, children in textile factories, children in sugar cane fields, children physically, sexually and verbally abused, children making the many products we buy without ever considering their source. Products made from the suffering of children.

To date, 187 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, promising to give children the right to an education and the right not to be exploited in child labor, as specified in articles 28 and 32. Yet, this child abuse continues.

Democratic governments have become more concerned with conquering new markets than fighting for human rights. And, this child abuses continues.

It is simply a question of greed and exploitation--greed within countries and greed between countries. These greedy children include companies going into third world countries to contract work out to the cheapest factories which will produce goods up to standard. This only encourages factory owners to seek out the cheapest labor--underpaid workers and children.

Poverty is no excuse for exploitation. Poverty is no excuse for child abuse.

Although the majority of child labor today is not related to the export market, this is rapidly changing in our global economy. I think that a labeling system, with independent monitoring, which identifies products not made by child labor, is a good idea because it gives consumers a choice.

I think that business men who go into Third World countries for cheap labor and cheap products should be held responsible to make sure that these products have not been made from the exploitation of children. UNICEF has set an example in its own procurement policy with a child labor clause based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We are receiving hundreds of calls from consumers in Canada and the United States who are saying that they do not want to buy products made by kids like Iqbal Masih, who was sold into slavery and never saw the inside of a classroom.

The role of consumers is important but we can't let governments off the hook. Eliminating child labor comes down to a question of political will. Why are some countries spending 40% of their national budget on the military and 1% on primary education? How do policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund affect child labor? Is the World Trade Organization always fair to developing countries?

These are good people. They don't want to sell their children into slavery. How much of the problem is us?

Our friends, our neighbors are no longer simply the kids next door. They are the young people of Asia, of Latin America, of Africa. They are the children of the world.

People will say that there are no alternatives for these children. We say that government leaders, multinational corporations, unions and other adults, must find alternatives. This child abuse cannot continue.

An international effort is needed to eliminate child labor, and we, the children, are now organizing ourselves on a world level to take action.

Some people are surprised at what we are doing. But the real heroes are the boys and girls who work in slave-like conditions to make soccer balls which your children play with, to make clothes which your children wear, to even make fireworks which light up the American skies on the 4th of July. You are a powerful nation. You have the power in your words, in your actions, and in your policy making to give these children hope for a better life. What will you do to help these children?

Free the Children can be reached by fax (905-881-1849) and by e-mail ( It also has a Web site that can be accessed at: HTTP://

Human Rights for Workers

Back to Human Rights for Workers Home Page