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The Outrage of Child Labor

Education knows no bounds and no boundaries. It cannot be contained in the vacuum of a classroom or confined by defined curriculum. Teaching is a futile enterprise unless it breaks down walls of ignorance, not merely in terms of academic deficiencies but also as reckoned by failure to work for justice in all precincts of the world. Learning that doesn’t admit of global perspective and duty is a fraud.

Intellectual ideas must be rendered to improve humanity and knowledge deployed for the betterment of generations. That lesson is not lost on the UFT and our parent union the AFT, which continually injects its moral energy into the hard work of activism on issues such as child labor, both overseas and in the United States.

When children are forced to work in fields or factories rather than attend school, it is, according to AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese, a “crime against society.”  In Uzbekistan, for instance, students are coerced into leaving school to endure squalid conditions while harvesting cotton. Their teachers are recruited under duress to serve as overseers.

This kind of abuse is endemic in many nations on several continents. It is a prescription for poverty, crippling of national progress and paralysis of individual spirit. And though not as flagrant here, it’s not entirely foreign to the United States. It takes a more subtle form in Jersey than in Java.

The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 does indeed bar kids under the age of 14 from working in most industries, limits their working to no more than three hours on a school day until they reach 16, and enjoins them from doing dangerous work until 18.

But agricultural labor is exempted from these regulations. That is a “loophole” wider than the sky.

More than a half-million child farm workers toil in U.S. fields. Some eight-year olds work 72-hour weeks and are exposed to carcinogenic pesticides. Kids account for 20 percent of farming fatalities.

All this in “the greatest country in the world”?  If this is the “American Dream,” then the fantasy needs a new landscape.

Worldwide more than 200 million children are brutally exploited in de facto labor camps every day. They cut bricks, crouch all day over looms, mine coal, make fireworks and do backbreaking farm chores. They are being denied an education.  And a childhood.  They are indentured to illiteracy. Civic institutions cannot stand and do not deserve to be stable under these conditions.

Education is a basic human right and a weapon for mass justice. As unionists we favor measures that keep kids in school and out of the labor force until maturity. We promote progressive legislation and enlightened initiatives at home and abroad.

As classroom educators we can do much as consumers and as communicators. Boycott goods manufactured under dictate of oppression. Become educated and “turnkey” what you have learned about child labor. Devote as much time as your curriculum allows to raising the consciousness of your students. Demand that your elected representatives take a stand against child labor and endorse sanctions or other enforcement of international standards that protect kids.

Familiarize yourself with the array of available resources with both an international and domestic focus on this topic, including the curricula developed by our parent union, the AFT.