Free the Children Address before the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights
By Craig Kielburger
Craig Kielburger’s work as an advocate for Free the Children has offered him the opportunity to deliver hundreds of persuasive speeches to enlist the support of individuals, organizations, and governments to protect children from exploitation. In the following speech, Kielburger faces a formidable challenge as a 13-year-old addressing the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights. He proves his competence and eloquence early on, earning his audience’s attention while using both his youthful perspective and his expertise to great effect throughout the speech. As you read Kielburger’s words, keep in mind
what you have learned about developing persuasive arguments.
June 11, 1996
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am pleased to be here today to represent children. Child labor affects children—
children are being exploited and denied their basic rights, children are being abused. I believe that children must be heard when speaking about child labor—I believe that
we must be part of the solution.
I recently spent seven and a half weeks traveling through South Asia to meet with working and street children. I wanted to better understand their reality—to ask them
what they wanted so that we would not be imposing our western culture on them. I can tell you stories of what I saw—stories which would shock you. I met children as young as four years old, working in brick kilns making bricks seven days a week from dawn to dusk, children working 14 hours a day loading dangerous chemicals into firecracker tubes, children working in metal and glass factories, children physically and verbally abused. Some children I’ll never forget—like Nagashar, who
worked as a bonded laborer in a carpet factory. He had scars all over his body, including his voice box, where he had been branded with red hot irons for trying to escape. Or the nine-year-old boy with a deep scar that ran across the top of his head where he was had [sic] been hit with a metal bar for making a mistake on the job. Then there was Munianal, the eight-year-old girl who worked in a recycling plant taking apart used syringes and needles gathered from hospitals and the streets. She wore no shoes and no protective gear. No one had ever told her about AIDS. These are the working children.
Not just facts and statistics but real children.
Some of you may say, "Well, these children are poor. Don’t they have to work to
help their families survive?" Studies by UNICEF, the ILO and other nongovernmental organizations have shown that child labor is actually keeping Third World countries poor, because a child at work means an adult out of work. Factory owners prefer to hire children because they are cheaper labor, easily intimidated and won’t organize trade unions. Kailash Satyarthi, who last year won the Robert Kennedy International Award for Human Rights, heads 150 nongovernmental organizations working with
child laborers in South Asia. He stresses that India has 50 million child workers, but 55 million adults unemployed. And because these children are not able to go to school they remain illiterate, and the cycle of poverty continues. Child labor keeps people poor.
As consumers, we bear part of the responsibility. Is it fair for children to be sitting on the ground for 12 hours a day, for pennies a day sewing famous brand name soccer balls—which they will never get to play with—soccer balls shipped to countries like
ours for your children, your grandchildren, or for me?
It is simply a question of greed and exploitation—exploitation of the most weak and
vulnerable. These greedy people include companies going into the Third World countries contracting out work to the cheapest factories which will produce goods up to standard. This only encourages factory owners to seek out the cheapest labor—
underpaid workers and children. Poverty is no excuse for exploitation. Poverty is no excuse for child abuse.
We, the children of North America, have formed an organization called free the Children. Free the Children is a youth movement dedicated to the elimination of child labor and the exploitation of children. Most of our members are between 10 and 15 years old. We now have groups in provinces across Canada and chapters quickly spreading throughout the United States—in Washington, San Francisco, Maryland,
Idaho, Iowa. Calls are coming in from all over the world—from young people, from
children, who want to help. You don’t need a lot of committee meetings to
understand that exploiting children in child labor is wrong. We may be young, but it is very clear to us that this child abuse must stop.
We believe that children must be removed from factories and jobs [must be] given to adult members of the family—adults who can negotiate for better rights and working conditions.
We believe that companies which go into Third World countries for cheap labor must pay their workers a just wage so that children will not have to work to supplement their parents’ income. These same countries should also be willing to put money back into the country to help in the education and the protection of children. We have consumers calling our Free the Children office from all over North America, telling us that they don’t want to buy products made from the suffering children.
That is why a labeling system with independent monitoring, which clearly identifies items not made by child labor, is necessary. Another solution is to hold importers responsible for making sure that the products they are importing into North America have not been made from the exploitation of children. Consumers have a right to know who made the products they are buying.
In May 1995, UNICEF set an example with a no-child-labor clause in its buying policy based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I have been told that the United States has a Tariff Act passed in 1930. Section 3:07 prohibits products being made from prison or unindentured labor from coming into the United States. If this is true, then why are carpets, soccer balls, brickwork and other items made by children in bonded and slave labor not banned from coming into the United States under this law?
Child labor should not be used, however, as an excuse to stop trade with a developing country. We are advocating selective buying, not a boycott of all products, which could harm children even more.
I don’t know why anyone would oppose laws which protect the children of the world. Maybe companies, sports and TV personalities, maybe consumers, might have said until recently that they don’t know about child labor and the exploitation of workers in Third World countries, but now they do. There is no excuse anymore. We have all been educated. Knowledge implies responsibility. You and I, all of us, are now responsible to help these children.
Eliminating child labor comes down to a question of political will. Why are countries with a high incidence of child labor spending on average 30 times more on the military than on primary education? How serious are world leaders about helping these children? Where is the social conscience of multinational corporations? I have hundreds of pictures of children which I could have shown you today. I have brought only one. When I was in Calcutta, I participated in a rally with 250 children who marched through the street with banners chanting, "We want freedom. We want an education." Children should not work in hazardous industries. Never again. Today I am here to speak for these children, to be their voice. You are an influential nation. You have the power in your words, in your actions and in your policy making to give children hope for a better life.
What will you do to help these children?