While the average University of Montana student might consider a heavy workload to be 18 to 21 credits per semester, UM freshman Emily Sandall defines a heavy work load in more stark and desperate terms. Consider a 14- to 16-hour workday performing dull, repetitive and dangerous chores in a brick or carpet factory outside Katmandu, Nepal, laboring for just pennies a day with continual exposure to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, all of which, by the way, is endured by children as young as 5 years old.
This brief reality check is brought to you by Sandall and Children’s Second Chance, a student community service club formed this semester on the UM campus that is working to end exploitative child labor practices overseas. Their goal, says Sandall, who founded the group, is to raise $100,000 (in conjunction with the non-profit Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (MAHR)) to fund a community-based school in the Sankhu village of Nepal that will help keep Nepalese children out of the factories and provide them with an education that can lift them out of poverty.
“This has become a passion of mine,” says Sandall, who first learned of the plight of Nepalese child laborers while working on a research paper during her senior year of high school in Albuquerque, N.M. Originally interested in writing about “newsies”—the young boys who sold daily newspapers for a living—Sandall eventually made contact with Dr. David Parker, a Minneapolis physician and human rights worker who volunteers with MAHR’s One School At a Time campaign.
“Emily’s great. She’s been terrific,” says Parker, who has spent the past seven years traveling around the world photographing child laborers. Parker poses as an overseas export businessman and uses fake business cards to gain access to the factories, where he photographs the work conditions on behalf of human rights groups. Parker’s work was instrumental in helping MAHR in its decision to fund a primary education school in Sankhu, a largely agricultural village about 18 miles north of Katmandu at the edge of the Himalayas, where many of Katmandu’s child laborers are taken from. At least one-third of the children in Sankhu never attend school.
As Parker admits, the problem of exploitative labor has taken on monumental proportions. In 1997, the International Labor Office estimated that more than 250 million children worldwide under the age of 14 could be considered child laborers. And based on the number of children who never attend school or complete a primary school education, that number may run as high as 500 million.
According to statistics provided by MAHR, the average life expectancy in Nepal is 55 years, with an adult literacy rate of only 41 percent for males and 14 percent for females. Nearly half of all Nepalese children never complete a primary school education, a contributing factor, many believe, to the nation’s extremely high rates of child labor. Although Nepal has laws on the books prohibiting child labor, many loopholes exist and enforcement is poor. Surrounding Katmandu are dozens of brick factories that employ children from Sankhu who are bonded or slave laborers for most, if not all, of their short lives.
So how did Parker and the One School at a Time campaign select this one particular village in Nepal, out of all the cities and countries with child labor abuses?
“Like any place of need, it’s sort of their good luck,” says Parker. “In the end, there are thousands of communities in need and one picks one and does what they can.”
Two months ago, One School at a Time began providing schooling to approximately 50 children in Sankhu, with the goal of eventually providing about 200 students with a free education, free school supplies, and at least one meal a day.
Sandall says that the aim of Children’s Second Chance is not only to raise money for the school to become self-sufficient—a recent CD sale on campus raised several hundred dollars for the cause—but also to raise public awareness of the magnitude of the problem. And as Parker points out, it’s not just the large overseas corporations like Nike who are responsible for exploitative labor practices.
“The place where kids are most at risk are not necessarily export businesses,” says Parker. “Child labor exists in a broad section of the global economy other than export industries. In fact, export industries are probably a very small component of the entire problem.
“You do what you can and you have a lot of high-risk kids. By helping these 200 there might be 200 that you didn’t,” says Parker. “It’s almost like Schindler’s List in a way. Why those 200? Because you could.”
Virtually every country in the world has laws against child labor, either directly or through the 1989 Convention on the Rights of Children, which spells out the right of children to receive a basic education. It should be noted that only two countries haven’t signed that treaty: Somalia and the United States.