October 26, 2015

"Hundreds of thousands of children, in many parts of the world, are working day-in and day-out."

Kailash Satyarthi: A Union Label In Every T-Shirt

The U.S. labor force (officially 157 million) is a little smaller now than the pool of impoverished child laborers in the world (168 million) in Kailash Satyarthi’s provocative account.  More than half the child workers do hazardous and otherwise miserable jobs in cotton mills, in prostitution.  Maybe a quarter of the working kids are in India, where Kailash Satyarthi, an electrical engineer, was drawn into his ‘raid and rescue’ campaign, starting in 1981, against the ‘common practice’ of enslaving children, typically in brothels.  He is by now one of the most honored voices in the wilderness of the global economy.  Last year he won the Nobel Peace Prize, paired with Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager the Taliban tried to kill for her education campaign.  This month he came to Boston to accept Harvard’s humanitarian award.

Slavery lives, he’s reminding me, in our world, in our cotton wardrobes, in our T-shirts.  I’m hearing a grim extension of Sven Beckert’s revelatory Empire of Cotton – about the industry built and still in eternal search for profits off captured labor.  “I have rescued thousands from the cotton and garment industries,” Satyarthi is telling me.  “We see that the children are trafficked and forced to work – many of them are child slaves – in cotton production on the ground: in the fields, in the cleaning and transportation of cotton, then in the garment industry.  Hundreds of thousands of children — in many parts of the world: Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, a number of Latin American countries, Mexico — children are working day-in and day-out.”

It seems like yesterday that an ILGWU label or its moral equivalent was stitched into every cotton item we owned.  I am looking in my favorite designer tee from Uniqlo and finding no label at all, just a stamp: “Made in Vietnam.”  Listen here to Kailash Satyarthi, and puzzle whether we ought to own anything in cotton, that not-quite-natural miracle, “the fabric of our lives,” that doesn’t have a union label in it.  I’m also trying to get this good man to spell out how he’d tune President Obama’s TPP trade bill to make it conscionable.


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