Schools Take On Studies Of Child Labor

By Hattie Brown — April 16, 2003 9 min read
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Educators have discovered that the image of child workers, who may be forced to toil in fields or factories for long hours with low pay and little access to education, can hook students’ interest and get them thinking about wider issues.

A child carries a sack of cacao, a major ingredient in chocolate, to a truck in the Ivory Coast.

A child who left his home in the West African nation of Burkina Faso to work on a farm carries a sack of cacao, a major ingredient in chocolate, to a truck in the neighbouring nation of the Ivory Coast.
—Photograph by Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Although child labor has always existed, elementary and secondary schools in the United States are beginning to teach about it in a concerted way.

Young people identify with the victims of child labor because of their closeness in age, making it an attractive topic for teachers, said Helen Toth, the associate director of the American Federation of Teachers’ international- affairs department. Child labor can also be easily worked into the curriculum, she said, since it touches on history, geography, economics, and other subjects.

“It’s pretty clear from seeing the way kids respond to it,” Ms. Toth said of such discussion. “It’s just a really great way for them to open their eyes.”

But some observers warn that such lessons risk oversimplifying the issue, and may serve in part to advance the agendas of labor unions and other advocacy groups.

For many students, learning about child labor provides an introduction to activism.

A post-Halloween discussion on the making of chocolate candy, for example, led students in a Washington state middle school to take action last fall. They pored over labor contracts and other documents, then wrote letters arguing the case for why a popular candy manufacturer should change its buying practices to avoid helping to perpetuate child labor.

The 7th graders at Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Wash., were upset to hear that Hackettstown, N.J.-based Mars Inc. had not adopted “fair trade” certification. Such a policy, proponents contend, guarantees that farmers are paid a fair price for their crops and that no forced child labor is used in production.

Christina Todd, who teaches world cultures and writing, said her 88 students were excited about approaching the candy company after learning that the cacao used in making their chocolate trick-or-treat stashes most likely came from West African farms that use child labor.

“I think they felt like little revolutionaries, like they were going to take on the world,” said Ms. Todd. “Hopefully, I can keep these kids interested in this topic.”

The students’ letter-writing campaign led to two conference calls with a company spokeswoman. After she explained that the company is trying to educate farmers about child labor instead of isolating those who use it, some students said they had changed their minds about the need for fair-trade certification.

“I thought it was pretty interesting what she had to say,” said 13-year-old John Wiegand.

Mars Inc. and other chocolate companies hope to eliminate the use of child labor by 2005, said Liliana Esposito, the spokeswoman.

“It’s very refreshing to see young people get involved in social issues,” she said. “I hope that they found the experience helpful and educational.”

Policy Changes

In addition to making child labor a part of the curriculum, some school systems, such as the 737,000-student Los Angeles and 50,000-student Minneapolis districts, have agreed not to buy school equipment and apparel from companies that have poor labor practices, including those that employ child workers.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, signed a bill in September 2001 allowing schools in his state to reject bids from manufacturers that use child labor.

Statistics on the practice are imprecise, but the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates 246 million young people are involved with child labor. More than 90 percent of child workers live in developing countries.

The Washington-based AFT has spent close to eight years campaigning against child labor. The 1 million-member teachers’ union, a member of the AFL-CIO, provides various lesson-plan ideas, documentation of child labor laws around the world, and a 20-minute video about child labor and its history to help instructors teach about the subject to all ages.

“Teachers can play a really key role in educating the next generation of young people,” Ms. Toth said.

One such teacher, Wynne Antonio, has shown the union’s video to enthusiastic students at Carl F. Shuler Middle School in Cleveland. She has also worked with about 60 students to direct a play about child labor, which was presented in September at an Ohio AFL-CIO convention.

The AFL-CIO is working with union leaders in other countries in a global campaign to try to end exploitative and hazardous forms of child labor.

Teaching about child labor can be integrated into lessons on geography, letter writing, and mathematics, Ms. Antonio said.

“I’m a political activist. It’s my responsibility to share that kind of energy and worldview with my students,” she said. “There’s a number of ways you can tie it into the curriculum.”

Despite the appeal of the topic for some educators, a number of experts caution that child labor isn’t a simple subject and should be taught in all its complexity.

Thomas R. DeGregori, an economics professor at the University of Houston, said such labor is not as clear-cut an issue as some teachers and lobbyists make it out to be. In some countries, he noted, child labor is essential for families to survive economically.

Many children in Bangladesh lost their jobs in the garment industry after U.S. lawmakers in 1993 proposed legislation to ban the importation of textiles made by child laborers. The legislation never passed, but the threat was enough incentive for manufacturers to get rid of child workers.

Instead of going to school, Mr. DeGregori said, many children were then forced to beg in the streets and even prostitute themselves to make money for their families.

“I’m not against using the power of consumers to help the powerless ... as long as you know the framework in which they’re operating,” Mr. DeGregori said. “Good intentions are not enough.”

Other observers question the wisdom of teachers’ use of lessons based solely on curriculum guides provided by unions or other special-interest groups that may not present all sides of an issue.

“The labor unions would have a biased perspective on this. They would see it as an inherent evil,” David F. Salisbury, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington that advocates limited government, said of child labor. “I think it is a problem when educators take a curriculum from a source with an obvious bias.”

Ms. Toth of the AFT said she has indeed heard from teachers who have encountered resistance from administrators wary of teaching about child labor.

A 4th grade teacher at Hawes Elementary School in Ridgewood, N.J., worked with her students to write a play about child labor in 1997, Ms. Toth said. The play alleged that several popular manufacturers ran overseas sweatshops. Administrators banned it, but a Broadway producer let the children perform the play for one night to a sold- out audience.

History Lesson

Ron Adams uses lessons on the American Industrial Revolution to teach his 7th graders about child labor. At the 400-student Broad Meadows Middle School in Quincy, Mass., he incorporates contemporary examples of child labor to show students that the practice persists. Students research labor practices in developing countries and report back to the class.

“While we’re looking back, it makes sense to ask what’s happening now,” Mr. Adams said. “All of a sudden, the class realizes this story of worker exploitation didn’t end with the Industrial Revolution, and that it’s probably worse now.”

Students have gotten so interested in the subject, he said, that many meet after school on Fridays to discuss ways to combat child labor. Between 20 to 40 students show up each week, Mr. Adams said.

Eight years after the inception of the after-school group, students have written letters to large companies, protested at a local shopping mall, and raised thousands of dollars for educational projects in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti and Nepal.

Broad Meadows students’ most famous project, “A School for Iqbal,” was conceived in 1994 after Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child who became an activist against child labor in the rug trade, visited the school.

Only months after accepting a human-rights award from Reebok, the sports-equipment company, for his work, Iqbal was shot dead at 13. Students at the middle school raised $150,000 to build a school in Pakistan bearing his name. Though a new group of students now attends Broad Meadows, no one has forgotten the importance of Iqbal and the life he led as a child laborer, Mr. Adams said.

“Our students came face to face with child labor, and it changed everything,” he said. “From that moment on, our school has never been the same.”

Kristen Cummings, an 8th grader at Broad Meadows, is a former student of Mr. Adams’ who has continued to lobby against child labor. She recently joined several students at her school to protest a store accused of selling clothes made by child laborers in Bangladesh.

“I think it’s important, because each kid has his own dreams. We can help them fulfill their dreams,” Kristen said. “It’s such a good feeling, knowing that you’re helping other people that can’t defend themselves.”

Many independent activist organizations also are trying to work with school systems to argue for educating students about child labor. “We don’t connect it to any particular political ideology or party. It’s really about human rights,” said Alyssa Erickson, the coordinator of the Minneapolis-based Youth Organizing Committee on Child Labor and Sweatshops, or YO!

Student Activism

YO! is made up almost entirely of high school students who visit area schools. This school year, the members have made 79 presentations and talked to an estimated 2,000 students about child labor and sweatshop conditions, Ms. Erickson said. Members also had a hand in advocating the sweatshop-free-schools policy for the Minneapolis school district.

“Currently, I’m really disappointed with where things are at. Curriculum tends to ignore issues of global justice,” said Abdulle Elmi, a YO! member and a senior at South High School in Minneapolis. “If those kinds of values are instilled while the kids are young, it really helps them.”

In New York state, high school students are also trying to influence curriculum and purchasing policies in school systems as part of the Western New York Sweatshop Awareness Project. The students learn leadership skills, visit Mexico to see child labor and sweatshops firsthand, and share their experiences during presentations at schools.

“Schools view this as a political issue, but when we go into a school, we are usually quite well received,” said Brian Brown-Cashdollar, the project’s coordinator. “After we give a presentation, students and adults will say, ‘I didn’t know it was like this.’ ”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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