Kirton's duties included trekking to Haiti's islands to perform weddings. While on the circuit, one of his parishioners asked the minister to meet two young teenage girls.
"I asked him, 'Why do you want me to meet them?'" recalls Kirton, who is originally from Trinidad and, until recently was the executive director of an Atlanta-based Methodist missionary program. "He replied, 'I need for you to buy them.' I was speechless.'"
The girls' mother had recently died in the famine that swept Haiti along with the general chaos of the nation's disintegrating society. The father was attempting to sell the girls into prostitution -- either in Port au Prince brothels or, perhaps, to be taken to South Florida.
"The only solution was for me to buy them first," Kirton says. He paid less than $100 for the girls, and put them under his church's protection. "We cared for them, sent them to school. I shudder to think what would have happened otherwise."
Kirton told the story last week to a Georgia State University audience. He was one of five panelists -- two international lawyers, two ministers and a journalist (me) -- addressing one of those invisible issues America doesn't want to think about: child labor.
When it came my time to speak, I asked those attending the International Law Society's symposium on the rights of children to take a look at the labels in their jackets. Even the best suits nowadays are commonly made in Guatemala, Mexico or one of several East Asian nations.
There's a reason for that. It's called cheap. Not only are many Americans put out of jobs -- or dumped into the penury of the "service industry" -- by globalization, but the shift in labor-intensive jobs to the Third World fosters inhumane workplace conditions, unending and grinding poverty, and growing animosity toward the United States.
There's not the slightest evidence of any rising tide of economic benefits lifting the world's workers as multinational companies force governments to strike down environmental and labor protections. There's substantial evidence that the multinationals are reaping incredible profits from the misery they create.
We can and do ignore what happens in developing nations. That doesn't mean we don't benefit. From the maquiladoras on the Mexican border to the sweatshops of Vietnam, people lead wretched lives in order that corporate profit-hunger is sated. And many of these people are children.
Around the world, the "official" estimate is that 250 million children, ages 5 to 14, are forced to work. About half of those labor full time -- which can mean much more than 40-hour work weeks. And, roughly 120 million kids toil in hazardous situations. More accurate numbers are probably close to double those statistics.
Generally, child labor accompanies much broader abuse. Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist and a past director of the U.S. International Trade Commission, estimates that when labor rights aren't protected, corporations save about $6,000 annually per worker. Typically, Morici says, child labor and discrimination against women are integral to squeezing that $6,000 per person.
In the Mexicali Valley of Baja California, children harvest scallions for tables north of the border. Child labor is illegal but about 1 million Mexican children are pressed into pennies-a-day jobs. Some estimates -- based on the number of children kept out of schools -- put that number at 2.5 million.
Do you like chocolate? America spends $13 billion a year on it. Would it taste as sweet if you knew that it not only relied on child labor but on slave labor? Last summer, Knight-Ridder Newspapers reported that thousands of young boys were being "sold or tricked into slavery" to pick cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. It's a story soon to be forgotten.
While we're talking sweet, take a hard look at your sugar bowl. Much of the sugar on American tables comes from the Dominican Republic. The Rev. Kirton recalls seeing cane-cutters, braceros, as young as 6 labor dawn-to-dusk shifts. And it's not a Dominican company that works the children. "Those plantations were owned by Gulf & Western, the same people who make movies" at Paramount studios, Kirton says. (In 1985, Gulf & Western sold its 240,000 acres of plantations -- along with a posh resort -- to the politically powerful Fanjul family of Palm Beach. That clan is often accused of widespread abuses of labor in its fields in the Everglades, so it is unlikely to have improved conditions in the Dominican Republic.)
Our clothes often are made by children in sweatshops in Bangladesh, El Salvador and Indonesia. American families spend an average of about $1,800 a year on clothing. Yet, only about $55 of that amount actually reaches production workers. According to the current issue of the magazine In These Times, about 30 retailers, led by Wal-Mart, dominate the apparel business. They employ about 2 million workers, mostly in Third World countries.
"It's their decision whether a product will be made in a sweatshop," says David Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
To understand the raw power of these companies, consider that only 23 nations have gross national products larger than the annual sales of Wal-Mart.
Moreover, these corporations aren't passive bystanders. They know what goes on. Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, Dillard's, Ann Taylor and Sears are just a few of the companies that in recent months have defeated stockholder initiatives aimed at seeking assurances the companies weren't doing business with offshore manufacturers who use child, convict and forced labor.
The reason child labor doesn't register on our radar screens is that it's something that Americans believe happens far away from our suburban homes and crowded malls. It's a problem in places such as India, Indonesia, China and the Banana Republics. Not here in America, surely.
But if that's what you believe, then surely you're wrong.
Attorney Robert Marshall volunteers his talents on immigration law to Atlanta's Catholic Social Services. When he spoke to the GSU children's rights session, he brought child labor closer to home. As many as 50,000 children and women are smuggled into the United States each year.
Many end up in domestic service -- often slavery. Others are forced into servitude in garment factories and as migrant workers.
And, darker horrors await many, who end up as prostitutes or meat for pedophile pornography.
Marshall notes that federal legislation passed last year attempts to tackle some abuses. But, for example, the law allows visas for only 5,000 of the smuggled children and women. "The rest are up the creek," Marshall says.
Meanwhile, the federal government is determined in its efforts to ignore protecting children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted Nov. 20, 1989. Although 140 nations have ratified the treaty, the United States isn't among them, due in large part to pressure from the corporate community that doesn't want to be accountable for squeezing profits out of ruined childhoods.
Senior Editor John Sugg -- whose own children are demanding a U.N. investigation into his clearly abusive requirement that they perform 15 minutes of chores each day -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.
For more information on upcoming sessions on the rights of children, contact Arden Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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