Child labour through a photographer’s lens
Over the last five decades, communities have united to combat many global health problems. We have eliminated smallpox and are on the verge of eliminating polio. And yet this greater unity has been inadequate to surmount other public health problems, like hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation and child labour. Landmines, which maim or kill thousands of civilians each year, continue to be produced in large numbers. Children continue to labour under intolerable conditions.
When I began photographing child labour in 1992, I had no idea how many children worked, what their working conditions were like or how difficult it would be to document the issue. I was surprised at what lay just beneath the surface of everyday activity.
Seeking to protect children from what are often deplorable working conditions, national and international communities have implemented laws and treaties to regulate child labour. The most comprehensive of these is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires that nations protect children “from performing any work that is likely to be . . . harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
In spite of numerous laws and treaties, child labour remains an enormous problem, and millions of children lack access to basic education. Officially, more than 21 million children between 5 and 14 years old work in South Asia alone.
Working children face a wide array of hazards, from rotting waste in garbage dumps to hazardous dust in stone quarries to harsh chemicals used to tan leather. I hope my photographs and writing, along with the work of others, are able to draw attention to the scope of child labour, the conditions in which children work, and how societies can better define the laws and conditions under which children should, or should not, be permitted to work.
My photographs depict an ongoing failure to meet children’s basic needs – a goal that is clearly out of their families’ reach. I have no doubt that it is poverty that forces most working children and their families to succumb to economic exploitation. Some of these situations, such as sex trafficking, make regular news headlines. But other problems – such as lack of access to schools and scarcity of jobs through which parents can earn enough money to feed a small family – go largely unnoticed.
Dangers in labour
During my first trip to Nepal, I visited dozens of carpet factories where children were hand-knotting wool and silk carpets in cramped, musty rooms. One square meter of carpet includes between 130,000 and 260,000 knots. Children who spend day after day doing this type of detailed handwork often develop arthritis, respiratory illness and stress-related injuries. When I toured carpet factories in India, I found children working at the looms when I arrived in the early morning, and they were still there when I returned in the late evening.
Because children are still developing physically and mentally, harmful substances have a greater impact on them than on adult workers. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, eat more food and drink more water than adults do. Toxic chemicals such as mercury and lead can cause brain damage and permanent disabilities. Similarly, children are more susceptible to many types of physical hazards because their bones are still growing.
In Bangladesh, I photographed children working waist-deep in leather-tanning chemicals and scavenging in garbage dumps. Leather tanning is one of the dirtiest jobs imaginable, carried out in a tumbling barrels or large vats full of toxic chemicals. In spite of these hazards, children work immersed in tanning fluids or climb into large tanning drums to remove partially tanned hides.
Mining and quarry work are dangerous occupations for both children and adults. Globally, more than one million children mine gold, tin, silver, diamonds, lime and other types of stone. Perhaps the best description of young miners’ work comes from the International Labour Organization, which reports, “In mines, children descend to the bowels of the earth to crawl through narrow, cramped, and poorly lit makeshift tunnels where the air is thick with dust. They constantly risk fatal accidents due to falling rock, explosions, collapse of mine walls and the use of equipment designed for adults.”
Laws that restrict child labour in the formal sector may inadvertently shift children from the factory to the street. As many as 100 million children work on the streets. Shoe shining, selling food or newspapers, running odd jobs, directing traffic at intersections and engaging in prostitution are common street jobs.
Seeing more than meets the eye
Any job, even one that does not seem harmful, can keep a child from attending school. Education provides a basis for a child’s social, economic and cultural development as well as a foundation for a healthy life. For many families, child labour is part of an intergenerational cycle of poverty, social exclusion and lack of education. Poor families frequently lack the resources to send their children to school and to keep them healthy. Children whose parents – mothers in particular – are better educated are more likely to go to school and stay in school longer than children whose parents received little or no education. A woman who has been to school for even a few years is more likely to marry later, obtain prenatal care, have a smaller family and raise healthier, better-educated children.
The complexity and ambiguity of some job circumstances make it difficult to determine whether the work is harmful. When I photographed circus performers in Nepal and India, for example, the children were often laughing – but most were bonded labourers, a type of modern-day slave. Circus owners trick families into selling their children and then force them to work without pay. Neither the poor working conditions nor the slavery-like situation is obvious to a casual observer.
Lending a hand to better children’s lives
I am encouraged by new data indicating that the number of working children around the world has declined over the past few years. Some nations have made strides towards protecting child workers from dangerous conditions, yet many others still fail to keep children safe, healthy and educated.
A child who was freed from bonded labour in brick kilns wrote, “My life is an example of believing that every unprivileged child, plagued with inhuman living conditions, is full of possibilities provided she or he receives the required training and guidance.”
For every child who is freed from forced labour and inhumane working conditions, there are many more who continue to work. International and national laws have gone a long way towards creating awareness of child labour. However, it will take commitment on the part of all nations to eliminate its worst forms. This commitment must provide for the basic needs of children, their families and their communities. These needs include schools, food, books and health care.
Perhaps the most common question I am asked is, “What can I do?” Many organizations – such as the Global March against Child Labour, the National Consumers’ League and Anti-Slavery International – help child labourers. The Advocates for Human Rights, for example, together with its partner Hoste Hainsein, operates a small school in the Sankhu village in Nepal, located about one hour by bus from Kathmandu. In Sankhu, more than half of the 10,000 residents are unemployed, and 20 per cent of children between 9 and 14 years old work. Thanks to donations of time and money, the children receive free schooling, immunization and a daily meal – a very important and popular part of the programme. In 1999 the Sankhu-Palubari Community School opened with 50 students. It is now beginning its twelfth year of operation with 288 enrolled students. A Sankhu police inspector noted to the Advocates that the school has made a positive impact on the village. Many community members are illiterate and used to ask for his help in reading their letters. Now, however, they no longer need his assistance because their children can read to them.
David L. Parker has photographed working children, labour conditions and public health problems around the world since 1992. His books include By These Hands: Portraits from the factory floor; Stolen Dreams: Portraits of working children, which received a Christopher Award; and Child Labour: A Public health perspective, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. This essay is adapted from Before Their Time: The world of child labor. For more information, please visit http://childlaborphotographs.com and http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/gallery/.
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