SEC adopts reporting rule to help with human rights issues

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The primary mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to protect investors from unfair or unscrupulous practices. Last week, however, the SEC did something remarkable: It agreed to adopt a rule with the goal of diminishing the human rights consequences of business practices.

The SEC voted by a narrow 3-2 margin to require companies that use so-called “conflict minerals”—metals like gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten which end up in a wide array of products like cell phones, computers and other electronic devices—to file reports about the use of minerals that have been fueling violent conflict and abetting widespread social abuses like the use of child soldiers. The rules were mandated under section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and targeted towards minerals extrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring countries.

Although two commissioners debated whether the SEC’s core mission of protecting investors should be expanded in this way, they agreed that conflict in the DRC and neighboring countries is a pressing problem and that warring groups are using profits from mineral extraction to engage in armed conflict and a wide variety of human rights abuses. Commissioners Troy Paredes and Daniel Gallagher voted against adopting the rule, arguing that there was no clear evidence that the reporting requirement would help solve civil rights abuses and that the SEC had no jurisdiction to tackle human rights problems. Gallagher complained that the SEC’s proposed rule had no exemptions for small businesses and said the reporting requirements might be overly burdensome.

SEC chair Mary Schapiro joined  commissioners Luis Aguilar and Elise Walter in voting for adopting the reporting rule. The three commissioners were quick to point out that the SEC was under a congressional mandate to implement the provisions and that the humanitarian crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is severe and required action.

The nonprofit community in general is pleased with the adoption of the reporting requirement, although some groups complained that the rules could be tougher and shouldn’t allow companies to list the origins of their mineral use as “indeterminable” for a two- to four-year period.

The hope is that by making the use of “conflict minerals” transparent, companies will be under pressure from stock holders and the public to seek “cleaner” minerals that are not tied to armed conflict or abuses. At the National Consumers League, we applaud this expansion of SEC’s role. It is our hope that supply chain transparency will help move the region’s intractable problems toward solutions and nudge war-torn countries like the DRC towards greater peacefulness. As a co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, NCL has long worked for the protection of children from military exploitation and the use of child soldiers in this region has been endemic for years.

At the same hearing on Wednesday, August 22nd, the commissioners voted by a 2-1 margin (with two commissioners recusing themselves) to require companies extracting resources—like fossil fuels and minerals–to report payments of $100,000 or more to foreign governments. NCL joins the nonprofit community in hailing this rule as an important step toward greater supply chain transparency.

Child labor advocates come together for three days of sharing and strategy

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The world’s child labor advocacy community does not gather together very often, but it did just that Sunday, July 28 through Monday, July 30, here in Washington for an international conference on agricultural child labor. More than 60 percent of the 215 million child laborers globally work in farms and fields–if you’re trying to solve the puzzle that child labor presents, agricultural child labor is the biggest piece of that puzzle and should not be ignored. Children who work in agriculture are exposed to pesticides and hazardous equipment like machetes. If you’ve ever seen a seven- or eight-year-old opening a cocoa pod with a machete, you know what kinds of dangers children are exposed to on farms internationally.

The Global March Against Child Labor, a world-wide network of civil society groups, teacher unions, and trade unions, organized the conference with logistical support from the Child Labor Coalition (CLC)–co-chaired by NCL and the American Federation of Teachers–and CLC members, especially the Solidarity Center and the International Labor Rights Forum. About 150 representatives from 40 different countries attended all or part of the three-day event, about half of those were from developing countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and the Philippines with endemic child labor problems.

Senator Harkin (Iowa-D), the congressional champion who has led a many-year crusade to reduce child labor, opened the conference with a speech that urged attendees to work to remove the “worst forms of child labor”—the types of child labor that harm physical, mental, or moral well-being of a child worker. After the speech, the senator stayed for the rest of the morning to soak up as much of the conference as he could. For the advocacy community, it was a powerful statement of support and concern.

Kailash Satyarthi, founder and leader of the Global March and a Nobel Prize nominee, expressed frustration at the slow progress in eliminating the worst forms of child labor. He reminded attendees that the 2016 deadline to eliminate worst forms of child labor set by the international community is fast approaching and we still do not have a strategic child labor elimination plan for each country. Satyarthi also demanded that multinational corporations stop hiding behind modest corporate social responsibility initiatives and seriously confront the huge child labor problems in their supply chains.

CLC member and filmmaker Len Morris of Media Voices for Children agreed, telling conference participants that the corporate sectors responsible for many child laborers— cocoa, cotton, and tobacco—could eliminate child labor from their supply chains in a year or two if they really wanted to. Money and resources, said Morris, are the key. Companies simply must be willing to commit enough financial resources to adequately confront these difficult problems.

The conference featured a number of leaders in the fight to keep kids in school and out of exploitative child labor, including Constance Thomas of the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, Fred van Leeuwen of Education International, Geronimo Venegas, president of the IUF Agricultural Trade Group, Mauro Vieria, Ambassador of Brazil, Tim Ryan of the Solidarity Center, and many others working on the front lines of child labor remediation.

The difficulties of eradicating child labor proved a steady theme for conference participants. U.S. presenters Norma Flores Lopez of the Children in the Fields Campaign and  Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch noted the very disappointing withdrawal of occupational child safety rules  for agriculture by the Department of Labor and the White House in April. One child labor advocate who works on agricultural child labor issues in West Africa was stunned to learn that the U.S. has its own problem with child labor in agriculture and was having similar difficulties reducing its dependence on child workers.

The conference featured several workshops that allowed participants to strategize about remediation efforts. A conference framework document identified several factors needed to eliminate child labor in agriculture:

  • a conducive legislative environment and policy framework;
  • protection of child rights; universal free quality basic public education;
  • decent employment and decent wages and work for adult workers [so children do not have to work];
  • food security, the right to food and sustainable rural livelihoods;
    the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively in free, independent trade unions;
  •  the rights of farmers to form their own independent organizations;
  • gender equality, social inclusion and non-discrimination;
  • strong safety and health laws and their enforcement;
  •  adequately resourced and funded labor inspection.

The conference also allowed participants other opportunities for activism. Several of the Global March attendees picketed the White House with anti-child labor signs. And conference attendees also enjoyed some “down time” at a wonderful evening of music and child labor activism at a local Busboys and Poets restaurant. The event, organized by the CLC and ILRF, and cosponsored by the Global March and the CLC, featured talks by three farmworker youth who are interning for CLC members the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) and Farmworker Justice, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The interns spoke movingly about their experiences working in U.S. fields and the challenges posed by educationally by their constant migration. Norma Flores Lopez, the director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for AFOP and the Domestic Issues Committee chair for the CLC, related the interns experiences to her own working in the fields as a farmworker youth.

All in all, the weekend provided many opportunities for the advocacy community to come together from across the globe, all of us looking for effective strategies to reduce or eliminate child labor in our countries. Perhaps most important, the conference focused some much-needed attention to the problem of child labor in agriculture across the world.

 

How American consumers can help stop the poisoning of children in Mali, Africa

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

Did you happen to see Brian Williams’ news show Rock Center last week? It featured a chilling report about child gold miners in Mali, Africa. As many as 20,000 kids are estimated to work in Mali’s artisanal mines, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which released a report, “A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali.”

HRW, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, which is co-chaired by NCL, found that kids as young as six years old “dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush and pan ore.” As if this backbreaking labor wasn’t bad enough, “many children also work with mercury, a toxic substance, to separate the gold from the ore.” Mercury, as HRW notes, attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.

“These children literally risk life and limb,” said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They carry loads heavier than their own weight, climb into unstable shafts, and touch and inhale mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth.”

Many of the child workers and adult workers have no idea that Mercury is poisonous. The children described the horrible aches and pains that the work leaves them with; one child commented, “Everything hurts.” Apparently, the gold shafts collapse with some regularity. NBC reporter Richard Engel talked to miners who told him a shaft had collapsed the previous day, killing one miner. Many children are not paid wages for their labor. Some receive bags of dirt which may or may not have any gold dust in them. NBC found that many children work instead of going to school.

Unfortunately, American consumers who buy gold are unwittingly abetting the problem. The Malian gold passes through several middlemen and ends up in jewelry and other items around the world, including the U.S.

In Britain, a fair trade activist and jeweler named Greg Valerio  worked with the Fairtrade Foundation to help consumers be sure that the gold they are purchasing is free from child labor and the most egregious labor abuses. Valerio is now trying to replicate the system in the U.S. but he needs our help. The next time you go into a jewelry store, ask if the gold is “fair trade” gold and where it came from.

“One of the biggest problems we have now is that the consumer doesn’t go into a jewelry store and ask, ‘Can you trace this gold?’  If the consumer would do that, we would see a shift in the sector,” said Marc Choyt, a New Mexico jeweler who makes jewelry out of recycled precious metals.

“Absolutely dirty gold is making it into the United States and jewelers who don’t have a traceable supply chain can’t tell you where it’s coming from,” Choyt said.

For more information, check out HRW’s press release here.

Advocates force ouster of Uzbek official from Fashion Week over child labor issues

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator and NCL Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

It’s not every day that you get your message through to one of the world’s most notorious dictators, but some of us in the child labor advocacy community think we may have just done that last week during New York City’s Fashion Week.

For several years, the Child Labor Coalition, 28 organizations working to end the labor exploitation of children around the world, has been deeply concerned about the forced use of child labor in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years. Each fall, Uzbek school children and their teachers are forced to leave their classrooms and perform arduous hand-harvesting of cotton for up to two months. The children—estimates of their numbers range from several hundred thousand to almost two million—receive little or no pay and often perform this back-breaking work from young childhood and through college. The workers are charged for shelter and food and by the time those expenses are deducted their compensation is so small it would be fair to say they worked for little or no pay or “slave wages.” The profits of this labor tend to flow to Uzbekistan’s ruling elite. Unlike child labor in most countries, Uzbekistan’s occurs as a result of national policy filtered down to local government authorities.

Recently, members of the Cotton Advocacy Network and the Child Labor Coalition, led by the International Labor Rights Forum and other CLC members like the American Federation of Teachers and the Human Rights Watch highlighted this issue by targeting advocacy at Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, who in addition to being Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain is a fashion designer who was participating in Fashion Week, where designers from around the world hold shows to reveal their new clothing lines.

Since Gulnara Karimov has bragged about the use of “high quality” Uzbek cotton and is a member of Karimov government, the advocacy community felt that she could fairly be used as an advocacy target.

As ILRF and the Cotton Advocacy Network planned its protest, IMG, Fashion Week’s organizer, washed its hands of Gulnara’s controversial show by cancelling it. Gulnara then moved her fashion show to the stylish Manhattan restaurant Cipriani on 42nd Street for a private show on September 15th. About two dozen of us followed the show to let attendees know about Uzbekistan’s child labor problem. It appears that our efforts scared away Gulnara, who according to media reports, was nowhere to be found.

We shouted things like “Hey, hey, ho, ho—Child Labor’s got to go” and “Uzbek cotton is mighty rotten.” We were joined by several Uzbek nationals, including one who had been forced to work in the fields himself as a child. Another Uzbek man said his daughter is a college student in Uzbekistan and that she is forced to harvest cotton every afternoon. He told a reporter from the Guardian that “it is back-breaking work, very, very hard, and most children have to work from sunrise to sunset every day until the harvest is finished. No weekends, nothing, for two or three months.” One protestor, an American woman from Connecticut, carried a sign that said, “Free Abdul,” who she explained was an Uzbek exchange student that she hosted who has subsequently been jailed by the Karimov regime as a political prisoner. Photos of the rally can be found here.

We handed out hundreds of leaflets and our protest received wide coverage about a dozen journalistic organizations including the New York Post, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Members of the CLC conducted a similar protest outside the Embassy of Uzbekistan in 2009. At that time, some of us wondered if word of the protest would filter up to Karimov. With the ouster of his daughter from Fashion Week, we’re pretty sure Islam Karimov got the news this time.

If you would like clothing retailers to know about your concerns regarding Uzbek cotton, please consider adding your name to this Change.org petition (one of several targeting specific retail chains).

Longoria Lifts Efforts to Protect Child Farmworkers in Washington, D.C.

By Reid Maki, NCL’s Director, Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

Efforts to protect child farmworkers got a big boost last Thursday, June 16th when the popular actress Eva Longoria helped Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) introduce legislation to extend child labor law protection to agriculture. “The Children’s Act for Responsible Employment,” has been introduced several times over the last decade but garnered increased support in the last Congress when 106 House members joined Roybal-Allard in co-sponsoring the bill.

“Agriculture is the only industry governed by labor laws that allow children as young as 12 to work with virtually no restrictions on the number of hours they spend in the fields outside of the school day,” Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard told attendees at the press conference.  “Tragically, unable to keep up with the competing demands of long work hours in the fields and school, a recent report found that child farmworkers drop out of school at four times the national dropout rate – slamming the door shut on the very pathway that could one day help them escape a lifetime of unrelenting work harvesting our crops.”

“I want to commend Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard for her leadership in Congress on the CARE Act,” said Longoria, one of the stars of ABC’s Desperate Housewives.

Eva Longoria speaking on the plight of the estimated 400,000 migrant farmworker children in the US

When Longoria learned about these working children, she became so concerned she decided to produce a film about child farmworkers: “The Harvest/La Cosecha.”

The film had its D.C. premiere on Capitol Hill later in the day. It focuses on three young farmworkers, ages 12, 14 and 16, who are among the estimated 400,000 children who work as migrant laborers on America’s farms.  As it detailed their day-to-day struggles, the emotional toll of poverty and migration was palpable. Even veteran farmworker advocates found it incredibly moving. Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers of America with Cesar Chavez found herself wiping away tears as she talked after the film. She said it reminded her of her and Cesar’s young days as farmworkers and organizers.

The teens travel with their families across thousands of miles to pick crops in southern Texas, northern Michigan and northern Florida during the harvest season. Along the way, they face backbreaking labor in 100-degree heat, physical hazards from pesticides, the emotional burden of helping their families through economic crises when work opportunities dry up, separation from their families and peer groups, and dwindling hope for their educational and economic advancement.

The film will be released theatrically in Los Angeles and in New York in July, along with special screenings in 30 cities nationally. Advocates hope the film will bring much needed attention to a problem that is little known by most Americans.

While retaining current exemptions for family farms, the CARE Act would bring age and work hour standards for children in agriculture up to the standards for children working in all other industries. Under CARE, teenagers would be required to be at least 14 years of age to work in agriculture and at least 18 years of age to perform particularly hazardous work. 14 and 15-year-olds would be permitted to work in certain agriculture jobs, as decided by the Department of Labor.

Reid Maki at last Thursday's press conference. 4 out of 5 Americans believe that all children should be protected equally from child labor.

I was among the speakers at the press conference and I pointed out the inconsistencies of U.S law, which does not allow a 12-year-old to work in an air-conditioned office but will allow that same child to work 14 hours in 100-degree heat, performing back-breaking labor in fields treated with pesticides. I feel fortunate to coordinate the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), co-chaired by NCL, which has had protecting child farmworkers as a priority for the last 10 years.

During the press conference, I noted the results of NCL’s new consumer poll on attitudes about child labor in agriculture, which found that 4 out of 5 Americans believe that all children should be protected equally from child labor, no matter the industry they toil in. The poll found that only 3 percent of Americans would let their own children work more than 40 hours per week in the fields—something many 12-year-old migrants do today. Given the public’s concern about child labor, it’s unfathomable that Congress has so far refused to fix this glaring glitch in our child labor laws.

Norma Flores López of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs—also a CLC member—said, “Starting at the young age of 12, I worked in the fields alongside my family. I worked to help my family survive, often until my hands were so swollen that I could not hold a pencil at school. Like thousands of American farmworker children today, I experienced the hazards of child labor in agriculture first hand, which is why I know how important it is to equalize the child labor law by passing the CARE Act.”

Please consider writing or calling your Representative or Senator today and telling them that you protect equal child labor protections for agriculture. Can we afford to sacrifice another generation of farmworker youth?

 

The missing piece

By Ayrianne Parks, Communications Director, Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, and Reid Maki, Coordinator, Child Labor Coalition

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes focused much needed attention on the issue of child labor in U.S. agriculture. The piece, which may have seemed balanced to the average viewer, failed to convey the dangers child farmworkers are exposed to, including toxic pesticides, razor-sharp tools, and the educational harm that they suffer.

The show’s segment called, “The debate on child labor,” focused mostly on agricultural economics from the perspective of a migrant farmworker family and a grower—both struggling to get by. However, this is an issue that existed far before the recession. Farmworkers make an average of $10,000 to $12,000 annually with no benefits. These extremely low wages in farm work, often compel parents to bring their very young children to work in agriculture, an environment most—including the father interviewed—hope their children will have the opportunity to escape in adulthood to pursue their dreams. The grower interviewed pointed out that Americans want cheap produce and that comes at a price paid by the sweat and toil of laborers.

Byron Pitts, who reported on the issue, also interviewed Norma Flores López, AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign Program Director and Domestic Issues Chair of the Child Labor Coalition. Several months ago, when 60 Minutes filmed its interview of Flores López, a former migrant farmworker child herself, she spoke in detail about the educational and health consequences of child labor. While most of her concerns did not make it into the show, 60 Minutes did post some of her comments on their Web site, but it is likely few Americans will see them. The average viewer who watched the show will come away with the impression that plucky farmworker kids will survive their years of child labor without suffering many negative consequences. Some do, most do not.

When Byron Pitts asked a large group of farmworker kids how many of them planned to go to college, each of them raised a hand. Having worked in the same South Texas fields as the kids, Norma Flores López knows well that few migrant kids are able to overcome the exhaustion of working 10-14 hours days or the obstacles that accompany missing school and changing schools, because their family is constantly migrating.

The sad truth is that most migrant kids do not even make it through high school. Federal data on this is horrible, but if you talk to migrant educators they will tell you that the dropout rate in many migrant communities ranges from 50 to 80 percent.

Farmworker children pay a high price, often sacrificing their education and health, for the very little amount they actually earn by working in the fields. We are thankful to 60 Minutes for helping bring attention to the very real problem of child labor in America and we hope that those who watched the piece will continue to educate themselves, their families, friends, and communities on the inequity of U.S. child labor law which—for reasons that are unclear to many of us—allows impoverished Latino children to sacrifice their futures for what often amounts to subminimum wages. For more information on child labor in the U.S. please visit www.afop.org or www.stopchildlabor.org.

Moin Kahn’s Tragic Death May Help other children in India

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator, National Consumers League

Moin Khan isn’t a name known by most Americans, but it should be.

Moin Khan went to work in New Delhi at age seven—one of several million child laborers working in India (estimates by advocacy groups of the number ofchildren working in India range from 44 million to 100 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor).

Moin’s case stands out though because he had a particularly brutal employer—his uncle, Kalimullah Khan —allegedly beat him to death with a blunt weapon on April 16 because the boy was working too slow.
Moin was only 10 when he was murdered.

Three years earlier, the Moin left his home on a train and traveled to New Delhi, about 300 miles away, in a deal arranged between the uncle and the boy’s grandfather. For the last three years of his life—for the rest of his life– Moin did not see his parents. He worked tirelessly, rolling bidis or beedes—thin cigarettes popular in India. Imagine a seven-year-old bent over 14 hours a day working feverishly at a repetitive task and you may start to sense what Moin’s new life was like. But the reality was even worse than you might imagine.

“Kalim was a really bad man. He beat up all of us if we made the smallest of mistakes. His punishments were severe,” said a seven-year-old boy rescued when Khan was arrested.

“He would put hot iron rods into our pants or he would hang us upside down from the fan or even throw us hard on the floor,” added the boy, one of five children who worked in the factory. “We were not allowed to go out or talk to anyone.”

On the day he killed his nephew, Kalimullah Khan beat all five children he “employed,” including Moin’s brother who is mute. Employed is in quotes because many child laborers in India do not get paid. Many are, in fact, slaves.

The sad details of Moin’s life were only discovered because a mortician noticed horrible bruises all over the young boy’s body and called authorities.

One wonders how many more children are being abused like Moin.

In the wake of Moin’s death, vigils have been held in New Delhi and a bright light has shown on exploitative child labor which is technically illegal in India. To improve enforcement, authorities just announced that they will be adding a hotline in New Delhi. India also banned child labor in circuses last month.

The public and officials in India are increasingly aware of child labor horrors. Moin Kahn did not intend to make his tragic death stand for something, but it has.

Readers interested in child labor should visit the web site of the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. News from the CLC may also be followed under the Twitter name ChildLABRcoaltn.