LISTEN TO US: THE WORLD’S WORKING CHILDREN
The following over the opening credits:
Scenes from the funeral procession of Amil Masai.
Amil Masai was sold to a carpet factory at four years old for twelve dollars. After six years of toiling in said carpet factory, Masai escaped and went to live with his mother and sister in Lahore.
“I went up to the apartment door and my mom answered and she said, “Screw it anyhow, you can stay.”
Being in a new city and back with his family opened up a world of opportunities to Amil Masai.
“Before I would have to work in the carpet factory six days a week for thirteen hours a day, but when I moved back with my mother and sister, I found this other carpet factory where the guy let me work only twelve and a half hours a day. I was so overjoyed because this meant I could attend school covertly for a few minutes a day.”
In 1994, Masai received the Rheboc Human Service Award. This was really special for Amil since the Rheboc factory down the road employed many of his schoolmates.
“I was tight with a guy who worked there and he’d slip me an extra pair of shoes when he could.”
A week before he received the award, Amil spoke at Senor Huesos Junior High. Amanda Luze remembers that visit well.
“We were all twelve but his hands were like a four year old’s. He sat on a chair in our classroom and his feet didn’t even touch the floor cause of all the stuff that had happened in the firecracker factory or wherever. We all made fun of him to his face afterwords.”
What is child labour? I thought this would be a good question to ask before I set about making a documentary on this subject. I travelled to the home of Bertha Hardwick, a prominent figure in the United Nations.
“Child labour is any labour that involves children.”
“So we’re not just talking about what we typically think of as child labour that goes on in third world countries?”
“No. Any form of children working is child labour. If parents expect a child to do chores around the house, for example.”
“But aren’t chores a necessary part of a child’s development, teaching them responsibility and helping them to care about others?”
“Well, how do you define “child”, then?”
“A child is anyone under eighteen.”
“So a teenager working in a fast food restaurant is child labour?”
“Yes, and what makes it worse is the restaurant or whatever business it is is exploiting that teenager because they pay them less.”
“Well, yes, a teenager working in a fast food restaurant is payed less than an adult but a teenager doesn’t have the expenses an adult has.”
“It doesn’t matter; it’s still child labour.”
“I said it’s child labour!”
(Henry enters, slamming the door behind him and heading immediately for the stairs.)
“This is my son Henry”
“Henry, would you please pick your backpack up off the floor, please.”
Henry: “F*** off.”
Traditionally, most child labour in the developing world was done by men, but this is changing. I spoke to the owner of a carpet factory.
“I had been reading the works of Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinam, people like that, and their books really got me thinking. I made a commitment to hire more little girls, get them out of the house and show them they are just as capable of being exploited as boys. In fact, I think their fingers are even more nimble than the boys are.”
“By the way, do you happen to know anything about the death of Amil Massai?”
(The fire alarm goes off.)
“OK kiddies, fire drill. Make your way out of my factory in a somewhat orderly fashion.”
In the developed world, unions are an important way of ensuring workers are treated fairly. However, there are other ways of getting what you deserve. Tony “The Bat” Moneno explains.
“This guy came to us and said the workers at his place of employment hadn’t had their pay in weeks. I sent one of my guys in to negotiate. The guy goes into the owner’s office and says, “You like bein able to walk?” and just like that the employees get their paychecks.”
Immigration to the first world can also help with the plight of labourers in the developing world, giving them new opportunities and a better life. Bertha Hardwick:
“Immigration is a great thing. Moving to the West can improve the lives and the job prospects for so many people. Granted, we can’t find jobs for a percentage of people who are already here so logically we shouldn’t be letting so many more people in but who cares about logic.”
Now let’s take a look at specific work children do.
As we have already shown, many children work in factories sewing jeans or weaving carpets.
“It’s not so bad here. The boss has instituted formal Friday. Every Friday we get to dress up in our school uniforms. Kind of gives us the feeling of being there, you know.”
Other children work in match factories.
“Well, unlike many factories of this nature we managed to form a union. The hours are still long, we still get beaten regularly, we’re still treated like animals, but now we’ve won the right to smoke cigarettes on the job.”
(Child drops cigarette onto pile of matches. The factory blows up.)
Many girl children are employed as domestic servants. An anonymous former child domestic dared to come forward to me.
“I was expected to work eighteen hours a day seven days a week for the family. I was beaten every day and the children hated me. The thing that was really horrible, though, was the family insisted on calling me “Mr. Belvadeer.”
Sadly, many young girls around the world are employed in the sex industry. Bertha Hardwick:
“I think one of the main things that would help prevent girls around the world, especially in third world nations, from getting into the sex industry would be if they were given an equal place with boys at home and in the workplace.”
“What about the fact that in the West we’ve had feminism and equality for women for decades and girls are more exploited sexually than ever before?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I mean you see the sexualisation of women everywhere here in North America from the 13 billion dollar porn industry to legitimate movies to advertisements to packaging to the evening news, how would increased equality for girls in developing countries keep young females from being exploited sexually?”
“Not to mention the increased sexualisation of young girls in the industrialized world, from lingerie for ten year olds to advertising to music aimed at preadolescents.”
“Henry, get the gun which I pretend I don’t have because people knowing I had it would get me kicked off the UN gun control committee.”
“Get it your f***ing self, Mom.”
Now let’s return to how youth in the industrialized world are exploited. We spoke to one youth at a popular fast food restaurant. Darren wished to remain anonymous and we respect his privacy.
“Yeah, I work behind the counter at Burger Express here in Newberg, Ontario Canada. It’s really hard because you have to put the food in the boxes and that’s really hard. Also, you have to stand here for, like, two hours without a break so you’re standing here staring at the same thing for two hours and that freaks me out. Oh, and also I don’t get long enough smoke breaks.”
“What is your pay like?”
“Well, I get minimum wage which sucks because even though I’m young I have a lot of expenses, important expenses like Doritoes and video games and stuff. And, I mean, living in my parents’ basement isn’t free. Well, actually it is.”
“And just how old are you, young man?”
Fortunately, some young people are taking steps to end their exploitation. We spoke to a couple of prominent young labour activists:
(Reads from a piece of paper)
“Well, we were working in this fast food restaurant. They were employing a lot of teenagers part-time so they didn’t have to give them breaks. Also, we were concerned about the quality of the food. We had concerns about the impact the restaurant had on the environment because it served it’s food in cardboard boxes on styrofoam dishes. Of course, styrofoam just goes in the garbage.”
“Actually, styrofoam is recyclable now.”
“Yes. It isn’t recyclable everywhere, but some towns take it and probably more will follow in the future.”
A bunch of us marched into the manager’s office and demanded he make changes. He pointed out that he could offer food made from higher quality ingredients and using real dishes. He also said he could pay us more, so we demanded he do so. Surprisingly, he acquiesced to all our demands. Now, what with offering real dishes and high quality food and paying us workers more the manager had to charge more for the food. A lot of the customers were teenagers and when the food got more expensive they stopped coming into the restaurant because they couldn’t afford the increased prices. This led to a decrease in customers which eventually led to the restaurant closing and all of us loosing our jobs, but we proved our point.”
One of the activists also faced another problem in the workplace:
“Once I was standing around gabbing to my friend instead of doing my job and I mentioned I didn’t have enough money for a trip to Toronto I was gonna take. One of the assistant managers overheard me and suggested I stand on the street corner and make a couple extra bucks. At first I thought, “Oh my gosh, he’s sexually harassing me.” I was shocked. I asked around about what the guy had said and fortunately it turned out he was just a jerk.”
The activists have sparked off something of a grass roots movement.
“Yeha, we’ve inspired people to do this at restaurants across the country. The same thing has kinda happened that happened to where we worked at. Mostly local teen hangouts, too. Kind of a shame.”
“Yeah, eh. It’s apparently led to a big increase in teens hanging out on street corners, doing drugs and beating up old people.”
“But we’re gonna start a group to get that problem fixed, too. Then we’ll have a perfect world.”
“Yeah, these towns should, like, open up some, like, places where teenagers can work and be useful, some restaurants, maybe.”
The UN has decreed that primary schools in developing countries must teach children basic and useful skills. A delegation of representatives from developing countries responded that it would implement this proposal right after primary schools in developed countries did.
It occurred to me it might actually be a good idea to travel to the third world and talk to child labourers about what they wanted.
(A Pakistani carpet factory)
“Well, it would be nice to have a big water cooler. Maybe even a coffee machine.”
(The factory owner enters.)
“Hey everyone, someone in here is having a birthday. Is it Ahmed?”
“And how old is he?”
“Well, Ahmed, in celebration of your birthday, I have a muffin basket here, from which I have eaten all the muffins. You are seven, correct?”
“Yes, I’m seven years old today.”
“Then I will hit you in the head seven times with this basket.”
(The factory owner hits Ahmed in the head seven times with the basket. A child comes up to the factory owner.)
“Boss, I am going to need next week off because I am going to a conference on child labour to talk about how you mistreat us and exploit us. Would I be able to have that time off, please?”
“I don’t see why not.”
I then traveled down the road to a soccer ball factory to get the opinions of a different group of children.
(Talking to a three year old girl seated at a loom)
“Do you want fair working conditions?”
“Do you want the chance to go to school?”
“If these demands couldn’t be met through arbitration would you be willing to have an appointed party negotiate for reduced hours and a reduced but adequate education payed for by your employers?”
One effective way to help end child labour is to put pressure on companies that employ child labour or whose suppliers use child labour. Several years ago a clothing chain was lobbied to stop using children in its factories. People threatened to stop shopping at the company’s stores if it continued to use children to sew it’s clothing. The chain didn’t want people to stop shopping at it’s franchises so it promised to stop using child labour. Now, the factory employs girls who have graduated from school. These girls have come to the city to better their lives. They work eighteen hours a day for five cents an hour and have their pay suspended if they take a break. The important thing though is, the factory doesn’t employ children anymore.
(During the following, a clock is shown making it’s way to 11:00.)
There are other solutions to the problem of child labour. However, little Timmy, my cameraman has to get to bed, and the Child Cameraperson’s Union only allows me to keep him until 11:00 p.m. on a school night anyway. However, I would encourage you to search for solutions to the exploitation of children yours…
Based on “Listen to Us: the world’s working children” by Jane Springer.