THE BLOG
06/26/2014 01:19 EDT | Updated 08/26/2014 05:59 EDT

Are You Doing Your Part to Fight Child Labour?

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Brick-walled, tin-roofed and windowless, there's nothing remarkable about the large, rundown shack squatting in a rural field outside the city of Patna, in northeast India. It's an ugly building, but what's inside is uglier still. In fetid darkness, the air stifling and thick with the stench of unwashed bodies, 13 boys labour 18 hours a day making carpets for a daily wage of $0.11, which they will never see. They are told the money goes to their families, but none can confirm it. They haven't seen their families since the day they were taken away; sold into slavery by their impoverished parents.

If you've been carpet shopping, it's possible that you have admired the handiwork of these boys. The carpets that emerge from that squalid shack will ultimately be sold in North America by two of India's biggest carpet exporters.

Sadly, this story doesn't shock us. We have stood in too many such shacks, meeting the hopeless gaze of too many enslaved children. No, what shocks us is that, despite decades of increasing global awareness of child labour, and the forced labour of children and adults alike, the world is still so far from stamping it out. Two academic studies released this year should have the world asking why we have not made more progress.

"My sense is the trend line is not a good one. There have not been significant decreases in child and forced labour in the 14 years I have been looking at this issue," said Siddarth Kara, a researcher at Harvard University's FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. Kara's research team discovered these enslaved boys near Patna during his intensive study of India's carpet industry. In his final report, released in January, Kara found that nearly half of India's billion-dollar carpet market still runs on forced labour, and 20 per cent of production uses child labour.

And Kara was quick to point out the carpet industry is not an anomaly. "I have personally documented extensive labour exploitation in carpets, sporting goods, apparel, agriculture, seafood, cocoa, and coffee. I've seen children in mines in the Congo, forced to work at gunpoint."

Nor is Kara's report the only recent academic study to present some alarming statistics. In May, the International Labour Organization (ILO) publishedProfits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. Using complex economic modelling, the ILO determined that forced labour reaps at least $150 billion in annual profits for businesses around the world. That's three times higher than previous estimates, according to Beate Andrees, an author of the study.

Hans van de Glind, an ILO child labour expert, told us the number of children involved in the worst forms of child labour--hazardous work like mining that threatens their health and safety--fell to 85 million in 2012 from 171 million in 2000. It's progress, but a far cry from eliminating those worst forms of child labour by 2016--a goal set by 80 countries at the 2010 Hague Global Child Labour Conference.

"Child labour is going down, but it's not going down fast enough," van de Glind said.

So why not?

Kara and van de Glind said the factors which make people vulnerable to child and forced labour--the desperation of abject poverty--aren't going away, while some factors, like statelessness, are rising. Without the legal protections of citizenship, desperate refugees are at higher risk of exploitation.

In April, the ILO warned that the rate of child labour had doubled in Lebanon since the influx of refugees from Syria.

"Their misery transpires into the products we buy every day," said Kara.

Which points to the second problem. As the ILO study proved, labour exploitation remains profitable. Despite increased global awareness, van de Glind said western consumers still do not ask enough questions about where their products came from. Nor do corporations. While businesses are increasingly demanding ethical sourcing from their primary suppliers, van de Glind said few bother to examine the subcontractors or secondary suppliers further back in their supply chains.

While much of the onus lies on individual nations to strengthen their laws and enforcement against labour exploitation, van de Glind also pointed out that Canadians can do our part, too. And if exploitation continues because it remains profitable, we as consumers can make it less so. Before checking out the half-off sale at that popular clothing chain, do your research. Check web sites to read what companies say about their sourcing. If the information isn't easily available, write the company and ask. The more pressure companies feel from customers, the more attention they will pay to ethical sourcing. We can also demand our governments enact ethical sourcing guidelines for government procurement, as the Ontario government has recently done.

Fortunately, for the boys of Patna there is hope. Kara's team reported the shack to a local labour organization, which is now working to rescue the children.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.