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June 1, 1999


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'Child labor is a big problem in the States'

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Twelve-year-old Craig Kielburger opened the daily paper in his Toronto home and began to search for the comics page, as usual. But that day, his morning ritual was interrupted when an article about a boy his own age caught his eye.

Craig Kielburger It was the story of a Pakistani child who, at the age of four, was sold into slavery by his parents. For the next six years, he was shackled to a carpet loom, tying thousands upon thousands of tiny knots, 12 hours a day, six days a week. For this he was paid three cents a day. Amazingly, his will was never broken; he escaped and began efforts to reveal the horrors of child labor. But when this courageous 12-year-old began to gain international attention, and Pakistani carpet manufacturers began to lose orders, he was shot and killed.

That morning in April four years ago, Craig's life was changed forever. To find out more about child labor, he contacted human rights organizations around the world, and with a small band of his friends from school he formed Free The Children, his own human rights organization. In the weeks that followed, Free The Children took off, fueled entirely by the efforts and enthusiasm of children Craig's own age.

Free The Children The journey would lead him to write the book Free The Children (with Kevin Major, an award-winning writer). The book, published by Harper Collins, is one of the hottest discussed books in North America, and Craig has been profiled by major newspapers and television programs.

Noted the Kirkus Reviews: 'Not since Anne Frank has a child so effectively borne witness to the madness of adult reality. This volume retains the language and voice of 15-year-old Kielburger, its young co-author, while its subject matter achieves the status of an important work on grassroots political organization and international human rights.'

Craig has received the Roosevelt Freedom Medal (with Free The Children) and the State of the World Forum Award. He is ambassador to the Children's Embassy in Sarajevo and was named a Global Leader of Tomorrow at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has also received the Canadian Governor General's Award for Meritorious Service.

Craig cannot forget the day he decided that he had to see firsthand the working conditions of South Asian children. At the time he was not even allowed to take the subway alone, but he convinced his reluctant parents to let him fly halfway around the world.

For seven weeks, in the company of a young human rights worker named Alam Rahman, Craig journeyed through the world of slums, sweatshops, and back alleys where so many of the children of South Asia live in servitude, often performing the most menial and dangerous of jobs.

In his travels through Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal and Pakistan, Craig witnessed the shocking variety and extent of child labor, and was transformed from a typical, middle-class kid into an activist. In New Delhi and Islamabad he created a sensation and learned something of the power of the media when he famously crossed paths with Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who was touring Asia with the Team Canada trade mission. By the time Craig returned home, he and the young people of Free The Children had gained an international profile.

Lauren Reilly, a New York-based writer, spoke to Craig recently.

Before the day you read that article about Iqbal Masih, what are some of the things that you enjoyed doing?

Friends, sports, going to the movies. Just the ordinary things that young people do. Even when we started Free The Children, we would go and have fun, go for a bite to eat. We never really saw it as work.

In your book, you mentioned that some peers taunted you for what you were doing. They would point out their name brand clothes and how they were made by child laborers. How did you respond to this lack of support from them?

When we first started, there were always the cynics and the nay-sayers. But it was something that we believed in, so we just ignored them. We closed our ears to it. These kids, though, even if they said things to us about what we were doing, they still signed our petitions. And a lot of times when some of the girls started to get into what we were doing, many of the boys followed. It was the issue that carried us through it.

I understand that you attend a rather non-traditional high school. Do you still receive negative responses now that you are in this school?

Yes, my high school is non-traditional. Well, there is the occasional youth that shows opposition, but most of the kids are supportive. I have very supportive friends in high school. They offer moral support.

Are some of the original members of Free The Children still involved?

Some members are still involved. I think it was Free The Children that held many of us together. We all went off to different high schools, and I'm still very close to many of them. There is still that sense of ownership. We banded together as a group in the beginning, and that friendship carried us through.

On your four-day visit to Bangladesh, you mentioned that the use of young girls as domestics was rationalized rather than worked against. Do you think that the reason child labor is so prevalent is because it is considered just 'the way things are'?

I think that is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. A lot of big bankers and such rationalize it, and it becomes rationalized as a 'necessary evil'. Those who don't rationalize it are the relatives and the children themselves.

Why do you think people adopt this way of thinking?

They don't see the connection to their own lives. There is a wall where we divide ourselves. We have made great strides in race and gender issues in this century, but not between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. But not just apathy are the causes of child labor. Children are seen as perfect workers, and they are easily exploited. It's also the trading policies, the enforcement of trading laws, corruption on local levels. Or when a government decides to put more money towards military than education. Children have little patience for governments and huge ad agencies who put their heads together and try to decide what to do. Children simply want change.

It is said that child laborers don't know of any other life than the one they have, so they don't feel it is necessary to live any differently. How can children be shown that there is a better, safer way to grow up than the one they know of?

To say that these children don't know better, I don't believe it. And we realize that these children deserve better. We can educate them. Everyone is realizing this, even large multinational corporations. I was asked to address the issue of human rights at the All Indian Management Convention, a gathering of the top thousand CEOs in India. There they discussed things like the Asian financial crisis, and other such issues. I asked why I was asked to speak on human rights, and was told that India was never fully developed economically. That by giving all the people in India a chance to realize their full potential and to empower themselves, they will become more financially stable, buy more products, and make more money for the corporations. If this happens, India will realize its full market potential.

They didn't pretend they felt compassion for the poor, they made it perfectly clear that to assist the people would be advantageous to everyone.

What has been the most difficult thing for you to witness in your travels?

The children, some of the individual stories. The girl in Madras, who worked in the syringe factory. Or when I asked some of the kids what they hoped for the future, and was given a blank stare. They felt they had no future, that they were born into such labor conditions. Their fathers did it, their grandfathers did it. When I was in Calcutta, on my walk between the office and the hotel, there was a young beggar girl who I would give fruit to. I asked her if she had just one wish, what would it be. She said, "To go to school." It was such a simple wish, something we all take for granted, but this was her dream. Many people pass her by, and see the longing in her face, and still pass her by.

You talk about how the children you have met are more important than any of the famous people you have also met. When you went to Calcutta, though, you had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa. What was this experience like for you?

(Laughs) Yes, I have met a lot of, as you put it, famous people. Mother Teresa is definitely the most incredible of them all. It made her so happy to see children carrying on her message and work for the poor. She was glad to see that there were young individuals to carry the torch for her.

There are poor immigrant children in North America being used as migrant farm workers. Can you tell me a little more about this and what other forms of child labor are being used in the United States and Canada?

It is a big problem in the States. There are an estimated 300,000 children, mostly illegal immigrants, working farms, following the harvests. There are also sweatshops, with children working in poor conditions. Free The Children also works with the large per cent of children who feel powerless to bring about change. One in four children live below poverty level. Every two hours a child is shot dead. This is a form of exploitation. Kids are also exploited by consumerism, by feeling their worth depends on what shoes they wear. All children should feel they have a voice, and on all levels of government.

What are some of Free The Children's actions in India?

In southern India we set up two schools in a rural area. We set up classes for the children and the parents, and bought cows and soy machines to work on so they can afford to send their children to school. In the North, rehabilitation and education centers were established for children freed from bondage. In Calcutta, we run 20 schools there implemented by Calcutta's chapter of Free The Children.

There is also a big campaign going on there against children being used as camel jockeys. These children are tricked into bondage and trafficked to Arab nations to be camel jockeys. They are tied to the necks and bellies of the camel, and the louder they cry, the faster the camel runs. I have met with some of the children rescued from this, and saw the terrible rug burns and the stunted growth.

What is your advice for children who feel strongly for a cause, but don't feel they have enough manpower to do achieve anything?

You don't need such 'manpower.' Everything falls into place if you believe in what your doing. There will be cynics and people who put road blocks down if you challenge the status quo. Just keep the issue at your heart. The more you research, the more power you have. Get together with large groups of young people. Never underestimate the power of a group of young people. And don't forget to have fun!

Take what you're doing seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun with what you're doing and make sure to enjoy what your doing. And if a child is interested in child labor or youth empowerment, they should contact us. We have a website that will be totally renovated in two weeks with new information, actions and updates. It is

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