Christmas Ornaments, Child Labor

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TODAY millions of American children will be opening gifts left under Christmas trees. Sadly, many of those trees are decorated with ornaments produced by involuntary child labor.

Just this month, an advocacy network, the Global March Against Child Labor, led a surprise raid of a sweatshop in New Delhi. Fourteen children, ages 8 to 14, were rescued. They were working in small, unventilated spaces for up to 15 hours a day, forced, under the constant threat of violence, to make Christmas decorations and seasonal gifts to be sold in America and Europe.

These were just 14 children of the six million who, according to the United Nations, are trafficked into labor under the threat of physical harm or physical restraint each year. Forced labor is part of an even bigger problem: recent estimates indicate that there are 215 million laborers under the age of 18 worldwide, over half of whom are working in hazardous conditions. The United States Department of Labor publishes a “list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor,” which mentions 134 goods — including decorations, clothing, electronics, shoes, jewelry, fashion accessories and toys — produced in 74 countries.

During the holiday season, heightened consumer demand in the West for these goods leads to a shortage of labor. To cope with this, teenagers and children are often recruited or, as in the New Delhi case, trafficked into forced labor. Poor parents are often tricked into selling their children to middlemen for a few dollars, after being told that their children will receive care and a free education, and that their wages will be sent back to the family.

Last Christmas, an investigation of toy factories in China, where 85 percent of the toys on the American market are produced, revealed that about 300 youth workers were drafted to help with the holiday demand. Another undercover investigation of a Chinese factory last year revealed that children as young as 14 were making Disney’s best-selling Cars toys in preparation for the 2011 holiday season.

The use of child labor has been rising around the world since the financial crisis in 2008. A recent study by the risk-assessment company Maplecroft revealed that manufacturing supply chains in 76 countries were at “extreme risk” of involving child labor at some stage, up from 68 countries last year. Among these countries are key American trading partners: China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines. Bangladesh, where a recent garment factory fire killed 112 workers, is also a major offender. Many of the dead were young women, some as young as 12.

America’s own history of addressing domestic child labor in the early 20th century points the way to a global solution to the current problem. Just as today, toys and trinkets then were often made by poor children in factories and tenements — but in America itself. In 1912, Lewis Hine photographed New York City tenement children sewing dolls and displayed the images alongside photographs of middle-class children playing with the same dolls in Central Park. The photographs prompted the State Legislature the next year to prohibit the making of dolls and children’s clothing, among other items, in tenement houses.

Child-labor opponents in the early 20th century drew attention to child labor at Christmastime to stir a complacent American public. Life magazine captured the irony in a 1913 cartoon that contrasted a child laborer, making a stuffed toy, with a privileged child who would later play with it. And in a popular book from 1914 called “Children in Bondage,” one reformer wrote that tenement children were “wasting their bodies and souls to make a little joy for the rest.”

Child advocates also promoted boycotts on the products of child labor. Florence Kelley introduced the “White Label,” which was given to businesses that refused to sell the products of child labor. During the Christmas season, child advocates told consumers to shop only at White Label stores. The movement raised consumer awareness and helped spur the effective abolition of most industrial child labor in the United States in 1938.

Marjorie Elizabeth Wood is a visiting assistant professor of American history at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

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