Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. 1, No. 6: May 5, 1996 

Children's Crusade Against Child Slavery

CBS's "60 Minutes," dozens of other TV as well as radio shows in the United States and Canada, and countless newspaper and magazine articles have made him famous. He has made such an impact in his home country, Canada, that the Foreign Minister asked him to be his advisor. And he's only a 13-year-old. But Craig Kielburger, an eighth-grader in Thornhill, Ontario, is the charismatic leader of new movement called Free the Children.

If you only scan his media coverage, you could well conclude that this lad is simply enjoying 15 minutes of fame. That would underestimate Craig Kielburger's determination and his ability to rally people, young and old, to his cause.

During a brief visit to Washington in late April, he met with Vice President and Mrs. Gore, made the rounds on Capitol Hill, and testified at a Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Consumer Choice and Corporate Responsibility. He made such an impression in press interviews that reporters more than once asked him whether he expects to become Prime Minister of Canada. Laughing off the question, he said that he hopes to become a doctor, but that in the meantime he needed to begin high school and also help organize more chapters of Free the Children in Canada and new ones in the United States.

The Starting Point: The Murder of a 12-year Old in Pakistan

How did this boy get catapulted into such an unusual role? It all began one day in April 1995 when Craig read a Toronto newspaper story about the murder of a 12-year-old Pakistani boy, Iqbal Masih, who himself had been catapulted into an unusual role. Iqbal, sold into bondage for $16 at the age of 4, had been forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, shackled to a loom making carpets for export. After escaping from forced labor at the age of 12, he became such an articulate activist for the liberation of Pakistan's bonded children that in 1994 he received the Reebok Youth in Action Award. While riding a bicycle on his return to his home village Iqbal was gunned down under circumstances that authorities have hushed up. Many believe that he was killed because of his dream to end child slavery in carpet weaving, brick-making, and firework factories.

After Craig Kielburger read this news a little over a year ago, a rapid series of events followed in his life:

 -- He consulted with other school children and got their support for a plan to carry on the work of Iqbal Masih.

 -- He got the reluctant permission from his parents to visit South Asia so that he could himself view the plight of hundreds of thousands of children there.

 -- He enlisted the help of the New Delhi-based South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SACCS) to coordinate his seven-week visit to Bangladesh, Nepal, and India.

 -- His visit to India happened to coincide with that of a trade mission Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien and a team of Canadian business executives, accompanied by Canadian reporters.

 -- Upstaging the Prime Minister, Craig and a 10-year-old Indian girl held a New Delhi press conference at which they introduced the reporters to Indian two boys, aged 9 and 12, who had been freed from bondage by SACCS, and also issued a joint declaration that

1) urged business people to reject business deals that exploit children and 2) asked companies trading with India "be willing to pay their workers a fair and just that children are not forced to work to supplement their family incomes."
-- The favorable reaction from the Canadian public resonated all the way up to the Parliament, but especially among boys and girls eager to form chapters of Free the Children.

While recognizing that its goal needs international support, Free the Children is continuing pressure on the Canadian government to take the lead in combating child slavery. Through a letter-writing campaign promoted on its own Web site, the organization urges the Prime Minister to:

For a further insight into this movement and its cause, see the text of the testimony that Craig gave on Capitol Hill on April 29.

What Will the United States Do?

The wave of concern in Canada puts into stark relief the lethargy in the United States, which is the world's greatest importer of goods made by children. In the United States some high-minded people, people whose influence can make a difference, are fretting about the demoralization of society and debating about whether it's more proper to call for a return to "values" or a return to "virtue." All the while, U.S. government officials, U.S. importers, and U.S. consumers, through their policies and purchases, are expanding the ranks of children working in slavery and near-slavery.

Has Vice President Gore learned anything from his conversation with Craig Kielburger?

Who in the United States will mobilize a campaign of pressure on the administration, on Congress, on business, and on consumers to end the callous indifference to this moral evil?

For ideas on what you and your friends can do, check the Web site of Free the Children, or contact Craig Kielburger and his organization at 16 Thornbank Rd., Thornhill, Ontario, Canada L47 2A2; fax: 905 881-1849: email:

Also: contact the Child Labor Coalition, c/o National Consumers League, 1701 K St., N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20006 (202)835-3323 fax (202) 835-0747.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers  (send email)
Bulletin No. 6: May 5, 1996

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