KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 1 / January–February–March 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

The six-month long intercontinental Global March Against Child Labour took-off from the Philippines in mid-January 1998 and will culminate in Geneva to coincide with The Debate Session of the ILO on the Draft Convention on Children’s Rights.

This article Fashion, Fingers, Frustration and Freedom is the text of the address given by Brian Hoepper, Lecturer in History and Social Education Curriculum at QUT, to the Rally Against Child Labour in King George Square, Brisbane on March 11.

I want to speak today about four ‘F’ words: 'FASHION', 'FINGERS', 'FRUSTRATION' and 'FREEDOM'.

I'll begin with 'Fashion'. I've chosen my clothes for today very carefully indeed. See my running shoes - what a fine pair of shoes! And what a famous company that makes them. My jeans - I think they're pretty smart, and not too expensive either. This is my favourite polo shirt, in my favourite colour. And here's my cap, carrying the name of a famous Australian guitar maker.

I like these clothes. And I know what they cost me in dollars and cents. But I wonder what my clothes cost some young people whose names I will never know. Because it's possible that these shoes, these jeans, this shirt and this cap were made by exploited child workers maybe in Taiwan or in China. I could just as easily have worn my shirt made in India, my shorts made in Fiji, or my trousers made in Costa Rica. In all those places, children labour in conditions which most of us could hardly imagine.

The evidence is comprehensive and compelling. The statistics and the analyses make chilling reading.

My second word is 'Fingers': the fingers of young children worked for long hours to cut and stitch and seam these things I wear. And the fingers of young children are at work in many other industries around the world. Hidden from our sight, they produce many of the everyday items we take for granted - soccer balls, paper cups, drinking glasses, silver jewellery, even tinned sardines.

The children pay a terrible price. Let me read you some short stories gathered by experts investigating child labour around the globe.

First, to India, and the carpet industry —

When children suffer cuts to their fingers during weaving, the owners scrape sulphur from matches into the wounds and set it on fire. This painful process stops the bleeding, so that the children's blood won't stain the carpet while they continue to work.

Next, to the Philippines —

In a sardine factory, the children begin work at 3am and work into the evening, seven days a week. They fill cans with sardine pieces. Their fingers and hands are often slashed from the cans' sharp edges. Their skin is damaged and yellow from constant exposure to water and chemicals.

And also in the Philippines —

In a small printery, the children are forced to work up to 21 hours per day. Their mouths are taped to prevent them talking to each other and they are physically punished for any mistakes.

Now to Thailand —

In a paper cup factory, the children's hands are burnt by constant contact with glue. Many have deformed legs from poor nutrition and from crouching over their work for long periods. They usually work for 10-15 hours per day. When one group of children was freed after authorities raided the factory, some of the children could not walk away because their legs were so thin and deformed.

All these little fingers should be doing other things - the things that most Australian children take for granted - playing with toys; turning the pages of books; steering bicycles along afternoon paths; playing music.

But these children have been denied those pleasures. Their childhood has been stolen from them. And, sadly, we Australians are the ones who sometimes benefit.

Let's spare a thought also for the parents of those children. Let's imagine the heartbreak they must suffer as they send their young sons and daughters off for a long day's labour. Here's what one writer said about the parents:

"It's easy to be good parents in a comfortable house, with a stable and well-paid job, with time for relaxation. It is harder when poverty seeps in like a nightmare, when you go to sleep thinking about how you will manage to eat the next day, when the daily survival saps all your physical, psychological and emotional energy. Child labour is the result of a system which creates poverty on a massive scale. It cannot be remedied on an individual or family level. It can only be remedied on a political level."

Which brings me to my third word — 'Frustration'. I’m frustrated. Why? Because there is no simple remedy for child labour.

Let me explain. When I pick up a shirt in a shop, the label can tell me all sorts of things - what the shirt is made from; where it was made; whether I can wash it; whether it will shrink; how to iron it. But it won't tell me the one thing I most want to know. Was it made by someone who was paid a fair wage, and who worked in a safe and pleasant workplace?

Thankfully, there is a new system being introduced in Australia and other countries. Clothes will carry a tag guaranteeing that they have been made under fair conditions. But so far, only a few clothing companies have agreed to this system. I look forward to the day when every item in the shops will bear that tag.

And so to my last word — 'Freedom'. How can we, here in Australia, help these children regain their freedom?.

There are many things we can do. Being here today is one important step, lending support to those courageous children on the global march.

The good news is that there are already many programs under way, aimed at restoring justice, health and fulfilment to young people around the world. One of them is the clothes tag campaign which I've just mentioned. You can find out about other programs here today.

Together, we can persuade our government, and other governments around the world, to adopt the big political solutions that are both essential and possible.

We want the world's children to live in dignity and peace. From today, let's promise to let those children hear our voices, raised for them.

The Global March Against Child Labour web site can be found at