Stop child labor

(Photo: The Advocacy Project/Flickr)

On Dec. 10, anti-child labor crusader Kailash Satyarthi (with Malala Yousafzai) will step onto a storied stage in Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, while here in the United States, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) winds down 40 years in the Congress and Senate. Together and individually, these two men — from opposite ends of the earth — have helped immeasurably to combat the worst forms of child labor.

Picture this scene on the National Mall in the summer of 1998, vivid in our memories even 16 years later: Hundreds gather to greet Satyarthi and other marchers at the end of the U.S. leg of theGlobal March Against Child Labor. Since January of that year, under Satyarthi’s leadership, hundreds of thousands of children and their advocates in dozens of countries had marched to tell the story of de facto child slavery and to demand a stronger global convention to ban child labor. When they reached Washington, it was Harkin who stepped forward to embrace the weary marchers, Satyarthi among them, in front of the Capitol before the march’s final stage in Geneva at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Because of the publicity generated by the march and the clarity of Satyarthi and Harkin and their colleagues, momentum grew for an ILO convention “On the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.” Soon thereafter, in a display of bipartisanship unheard of today, Harkin worked with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) — yes, that Jesse Helms — to secure the Senate’s ratification of the convention by a unanimous vote. The ILO convention was ratified quickly by more than 150 countries; the number of child laborers and children in dangerous jobs has fallen dramatically since.

Many readers of The Hill know well Harkin’s indefatigable energy to increase the minimum wage and to fight for the rights of workers. From his bravery in exposing human rights abuses in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime in the early 1970s to his battle against the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile later that decade, to his work for exploited cocoa workers in Africa, Harkin has earned the admiration of human rights and worker rights defenders across the globe.

A key chapter of Harkin’s career has been his unrelenting quest to end child labor, collaborating with Satyarthi. We have been privileged to know Satyarthi over decades of involvement in two groups which he helped to create that are at the forefront of the fight against child labor:GoodWeave (formerly RugMark) and the International Labor Rights Forum. Both of these organizations stand also as part of Harkin’s legacy. Harkin served on the board of the ILRF and he has always been ready to support GoodWeave initiatives.

Part of why these initiatives serve as models is that they are based on local-global links. Early on in Satyarthi’s work in his native India, he built organizations that freed children, as young as 4, from lives of grueling “bonded” slave labor. Some were shackled to carpet looms in horrific conditions. But Satyarthi soon grew to understand that no matter how many children were freed, there were others to take their place — thanks in part to the global demand for hand-loomed carpets. This is where Harkin came in. He was among the few who had the audacity and vision to co-dream with Satyarthi about transforming this vicious global-local link of exploitation into a virtuous link of liberation: GoodWeave created a system of monitoring and enforcing the certification of carpets that gives an incentive to companies to end child labor, employ adults in dignified skilled work, and court consumers who want to buy carpets that are not made with child labor. As a result, buyers of hand-loomed carpets now have a clear choice.

In close coordination with these efforts, since 1995 Harkin has secured over $1 billion from the U.S. Labor Department to support hundreds of projects to combat child labor in over 90 countries.

When the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced its choice of Satyarthi in October, Harkin was exuberant: “It was Kailash’s example that inspired my own work to end the worst forms of child labor around the world. I have always been honored to call Kailash a friend, if not a brother, and I am proud that his work has been recognized by the Nobel Committee.”

And, so let us raise our glasses: As we celebrate Kailash Satyarthi, so too do we celebrate Sen. Tom Harkin. Few have done more to bring the voices of the dispossessed and marginalized into the halls of Congress — and with great humility, great humanity and great prowess. Thank you, Senator.

John Cavanagh is the Director of the Institute for Policy Studies. Robin Broad is a professor at the School of International Service at American University.

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