Two Indian boys, the children of tea plantation workers in Darjeeling, gather plant trimmings they will use to heat their homes. During winter months, the tea plants are dormant, but plantation workers trim the dead branches for fuel.
This week marks 20 years since the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was the first international agreement recognizing that kids are human beings, deserving the full range of human rights: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. They also have the right to rest and leisure; to play, to learn, to express themselves.
This anniversary comes at a time when we here in the United States are preparing for the nation’s greatest feast. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of the many ways in which kids participate in bringing food to the global table.
A boy hauls a load of firewood gathered near a tea plantation that crosses the road connecting Sikkim and Darjeeling in India.
Around the world, kids hunt and harvest. They collect firewood for the kitchen. They tend their families’ cows. They make the lacquered dishes in which food is served in Burma. They rake salt into neat little piles, which end up in kitchens across Cambodia—and as far away as New Mexico, where I keep a jar full of delicious Kampot salt.
Boys pose for a portrait in the middle of the night at the Indian truck-stop restaurant where they work serving food and cleaning up, in West Bengal.
Kids work through the night at truck stops in India and Burma. They boil tea and serve it to customers in Burmese tea shops. They clean restaurant tables and chairs, then sleep atop that furniture in the dead of night. When running water is not available, kids wash dishes in the river.
A boy washes the pots from a tea shop using only the sand and waters of the Brahmaputra River. Raw sewage from Guwahati, India, a city of one million, dumps into the river above this point, leaving the sand and water tainted with a foul, black muck.
And even the children who do not work often suffer the consequences of parents who have jobs in the food industry. Some kids spend their entire childhoods as economic refugees, denied the rights to education or health care or sanitary living, as their parents peel shrimp in a country to which they were smuggled, in search of a better life. This week, I chatted with a Burmese colleague who is working on a follow-up story to last year’s incident in which 54 Burmese migrant workers suffocated in a fish truck bound for Phuket. My journalist friend interviewed the families left behind in Burma—wives without husbands, children without fathers, struggling to survive.
Local kids watch as American Jim Harris of Phoenix Clearance LTD reviews a video of the destruction of a pair of phosphorous bombs by his team. The bombs were found and reported by a pair of young boys tending cattle.
In Laos, the job of a child farmer takes on a dangerous dimension, as kids frequently stumble across bombs in their fields—remnants of the U.S. air war 40 years ago. They either work around the ordnance or inform a clearance team to destroy the bomb (as pictured above).
In most the world, a child’s life is not easy. And neither are these issues simple. Two years ago I wrote an article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, about children who work in Cambodia . The story was an extension of a photo exhibit that Jerry had in Phnom Penh. We tried to examine the complexity of child labor, and the myriad ways in which different cultures view the issue. No easy solutions exist. Most children who work fall somewhere in the middle, in a vast sea of gray between right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. Here, in honor of kids this week, is that article:
Laek, 8, rakes salt crystals while working with her mother and young brother in a salt field in Kampot, Cambodia. Their family came from Svay Rieng province for the seasonal work. They work barefoot all day in the sun raking and hauling the sharp crystals in hot water. The vast majority of Cambodian children work. Their labor is imperative for their survival and the survival of their families.
The Working World
Had I been born as Roeut Sokang, who is precisely my age, I would have three kids – 14, 8 and 5. For the hottest four months of every year, my family and I would live together in the salt fields of Kampot, in southern Cambodia. We would make the journey from our small farm, in Svay Rieng many hours away, to camp in a wooden hut with dozens of others. The families here would come in droves, driven by necessity but never choice. I would dream of a time when my kids could go to school uninterrupted. All of my neighbors would share that dream.
My youngest child would play around the house, hunting for recyclables, still too young for the fields. But the rest of us would toil in the shallow ponds beneath a non-stop sun. We would shovel thick wet salt into baskets, one after another. We would lug those baskets, more than 40 pounds each, two at a time, on a bamboo pole. Back and forth we would trudge, from field to warehouse, where the salt would sit in piles 20 feet high.
If we could afford socks, we would wear them to protect our feet from the gravelly salt and its hot, oily film. But most times, we would go without socks and our soles would grow so calloused we would forget to flinch at the sharp pinch of crystals on our feet.
That salt would be bundled into 50-kilogram sacks, then shipped to Phnom Penh and Thailand and points beyond. We would work each day until our muscles grew strong, our bodies lean, our arms and legs chiseled by repetitive motion. Each sack of salt would sell the equivalent of $2 on site. So cheap, our boss would let us take a small bag home for free. All that work, all day long, and the three of us together would earn just $5 a day.
If I had been born as Roeut, this would be my life every dry season for 12 years straight — through the births of two children, through the end of war. I would go to work these days in peacetime, no longer scared of attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers. I would take my children with me — or else we could not eat.
And had Roeut been born in my shoes instead, she would sit at restaurant tables far away, where the food is cooked in Kampot salt. She would lift a shaker over her plate and sprinkle her food with little white flecks. She would season her dishes with salt from a harvest that maybe, just maybe, my children and I helped shovel.
The differences between Roeut and me are manifest in countless ways; not just what we wear, where we sleep or the money in our pockets. But also in how our cultures interpret the image of her children working beside her, sweeping salt in the mid-day heat of a tropical sun.
I come from a part of the world (the West) that advises Roeut’s part of the world (the developing) on how best to raise her children. I come from a place that, for better or worse, classifies the Cambodian salt fields as “hazardous” work venues; and deems the job itself one of the world’s “worst forms of child labor.”
Mahp, 11, sells drinks from a cooler along the river front promenade in the evening in Phnom Penh. She lives with her family, attends school during the day and works every night.
Nearly 250 million children around the globe work. Nearly half of Cambodia’s kids – 44.8 percent – are among them, the U.S. Department of Labor reports in a 2006 study. For most, that means planting rice, tending cows or otherwise helping on the farm (paid or unpaid, family-owned or work-for-hire). But many Cambodian children, like Roeut’s, work in salt production, fish processing, portering, brick-making, garbage-picking and other realms determined to be hazardous to a child’s mental and physical development – they are back-breaking, dangerous and foul.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the International Labor Organization’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, the Cambodian government is obligated to stop kids from working these jobs. It’s participating in a $4.75-million program, funded by the US Labor Department, to that end. Since 2000, routine labor inspections in Cambodia include questions about employees’ ages. Yet, despite the presence of more than 2 million kids in the Cambodian workforce, the US Labor Department reports, “No employer has ever been prosecuted for violating child labor laws.”
Perhaps it has something to do with culture and necessity.
Chuon Mu, 10, gathers water spinach with her mother to sell at the local market in Kampot, Cambodia.
Hazards or no hazards, the idea that child labor is wrong stems from modern-day Western polemics on the meaning of childhood. The guiding principle is a “concept of childhood as a biologically driven natural phenomenon characterized by physical and mental growth stages that are everywhere roughly the same,” writes William E. Myers, a scholar and former official of the ILO and Unicef. But this presents a problem. As Myers points out, there is “infinite variation” in how cultures view children – and how societies view children at work.
In the West, most children are not expected to work toward the household economy; usually, food appears on their tables three times a day until they are 18. But in countries like Cambodia, many kids don’t eat if they don’t work, simple as that. It’s hard to tell a struggling Cambodian parent that a job is inappropriate to her child’s development. Such notions, Myers writes, “do not adequately fit with the realities of developing countries.”
Say Sen, 13, and her 6-month-old brother Song Ly, beg for money from customers at the riverfront restaurants in Phnom Penh. She lives with her parents in the Tonle Bassac squatter camp, and says she also goes to school every day.
The Oxford anthropologist Jo Boyden, in the 1990s, was among the first and loudest to critique a global concept of childhood. She would argue that my upper-middle-class, Midwestern, Catholic, American upbringing does not necessarily qualify me to tell a young widowed Khmer woman, living on a few dollars a day, how best to raise her kids. But policymakers were (and frequently still are) applying Western values to child-rearing across the globe.
Boyden cited a classic example of thousands of child factory workers in Bangladesh who were fired after the United States prohibited imports of goods made by children. The children did not return to school, as U.S. authorities had hoped, but found work in more dangerous situations. Boyden essentially argued that shutting kids out of the workforce is not their best protection. If they must, let them work. But let them work well – with food and shelter, education and hope for the future.
These are, after all, the precise goals for which many children work in the first place.
It’s why, back in the salt fields, 11year-old Ri sweeps the slushy white grains into small piles for her father to carry to the nearby warehouse. They come from a small house in the countryside an hour away, where the earth doesn’t give them what they need to eat, to survive. So they come to the salt fields to work. “It’s hot and it’s hard and I don’t like it,” says Ri. “But I have to work.”
Her father, Chaw, stops for a quick smoke before lugging more baskets. He doesn’t like this life either. He would prefer a different childhood for his daughter. “Maybe when she gets older she can go to school all day and graduate,” He says. “At the moment she has to help me so we can earn more money.”
Whether shoveling salt, tending cows, picking spinach or sorting garbage, the children of Cambodia – and most developing countries – work to live.
Like Hong, a 10-year-old boy selling paintings – his paintings – on the Sihanoukville beach not so far from Kampot. Hong has been an artist for about two years, but it’s not what he wants to do in life. It’s just a step. When Hong grows up, he wants to be a tour guide. But for now, he sells little painted planks of wood for $3 and gives the money to his auntie for “rent.” His parents died several years ago. When I ask how, he says his mom was sick and “my father drove a motorcycle and then a boy came with a gun and went boom, boom, boom. And then he died. In Phnom Penh.”
There’s a lot of love in Hong’s paintings – lots of boyfriends and girlfriends standing side-by-side or eating at restaurant tables in the sand. Lots of families, too. He hands me his cheeriest picture, all yellow and red, which depicts a family of crabs: a mama, a papa and their nine little babies.
I keep that painting in my office, its yellow background brilliant as the sun. It reminds me of Hong: a little chipped on the edges, but sturdy and bright.