CHILD LABOR COALITION PRESS RELEASE: After Saudi Arabia Ratifies Child Labor Convention 138, the Child Labor Coalition Urges Immediate US Ratification

For immediate release: February 28, 2013
Contact: Reid Maki, (202) 207-2820,

On February 23, Saudi Arabia became the 167th country to ratify ILO Convention 138, setting the minimum age at which children in the country can work. The US must join the world community and ratify the convention.

(Washington) –The 31-member Child Labor Coalition (CLC) welcomes news that Saudi Arabia has become the 167th country to ratify Convention 138, setting a minimum age for work at 15, and it urges the US to ratify the convention as well. Drafted by the members of the International Labour Organization in 1973, Convention 138 asks nations to work to eliminate exploitive child labor and establish minimum ages at which children are allowed to work. Most countries have set those minimums at 15 or 16, with about one-third of nations adopting 14 as the age limit on a temporary basis. Convention 138 allows light work that is not harmful for children who are 13-15. In the US, however, children are allowed to perform strenuous labor for wages in agriculture beginning at the age of 12.

“The United States is dedicated to eliminating exploitive child labor around the world,” noted Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition and executive director of the National Consumers League, which played a crucial role in eliminating many forms of child labor in the US in the 19th and early 20th century. “With 167 countries pledging minimum age restrictions for work at 14, 15, or 16, we need to join the international community and do the same. If Saudi Arabia can ratify protections for child workers, certainly the US should also do so. We must also adopt Convention 138’s prohibitions of harmful and dangerous work by those under 18.”

“Before the US can ratify Convention 138, it must close the loopholes in US child labor law that allow children to work for wages in agriculture at age 12,” noted Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and the chair of the CLC’s Domestic Issues Committee. “Farm work is particularly dangerous—with mortality rates four times that of other industries—yet we allow children who are 12 to perform back-breaking labor in the fields for unlimited hours when school is not in session.”

“As a former child migrant farmworker, I know the dangers children in the fields are exposed to—powerful machinery, razor-sharp tools, and pesticide poisoning—to name just a few,” added Flores Lopez. “Child labor has a huge impact on the farmworker community, creating rampant generational poverty as the rigors of the work, migration, and endless school disruptions cause children to tire and drop out of school. With millions of unemployed adults in America, why must we rely on young children to harvest our fruits and vegetables?”

“By continuing to keep children working in the fields, the US causes adult wages in agriculture to remain artificially low, making it nearly impossible for these families to invest in their children and break the cycle of poverty,” noted Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum and chair of the CLC’s International Issues Committee. “The US should take immediate steps to ratify international treaties like Convention 138 and the Convention on the Rights of the Children—both embraced nearly unanimously by United Nations members—that work to increase protections for children.”

“The elimination of child labor has been a goal of educators for many years,” added Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and a co-chair of the CLC.  “Tackling the issue of child labor has gone hand-in-hand with our efforts to ensure that quality education is provided as a right to all children. Here and abroad, the elimination of child labor goes beyond education, and should also include policy changes that address societal poverty and inequality, as well the legal framework that ILO Convention 138 helps provide.”


About the Child Labor Coalition

The Child Labor Coalition represents consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. [The CLC’s website and membership list can be found at ]


We Remember Robin Romano–Filmmaker, Photographer, Activist and Friend

Robin Romano rarely entered a room unnoticed.

As a friend said recently, he was a “whirling dervish of a man.” He exuded energy, passion, and humor—all three bubbled out of him. He was rarely quiet. And he had a lot to talk about. He made it his life’s work to document child labor in its worst forms. He traveled the world looking for injustice, focusing public attention on the exploitation of children. At a eulogy in New York, Pharis Harvey, the founder of the International Labor Rights Fund and a pioneer in modern child labor advocacy, called him “a loose cannon for justice.”

“The heat of his moral imperative was more than he could contain,” said Sam Morris, who worked with Robin on multiple films.

We lost Robin in early November, when he passed away unexpectedly. It seemed impossible that this firebrand could be gone. As I attended his memorial service in New York, I don’t think I was alone in expecting him to walk in the door and say, “The joke’s on you…the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Robin was only 57, but everyone thought he was younger. He had piercing blue eyes that were constantly smiling or glowering. Robin was often outraged. How could you not be? A quarter of a billion children were toiling in the most harrowing of circumstances and no one seemed to care. Millions were enslaved. Millions were trapped in bonded labor.

Robin’s outrage was often tempered with a mischievous delight in making people laugh.  He was a jokester who loved making prank phone calls. He would call and, in an exaggerated, exotic accent—with mock-outrage—accuse us of using child labor or failing to pay our taxes.

I first met Robin over a dozen years ago when I learned that he and his filmmaking partner Len Morris were working on the first feature-length film about child labor–Stolen Childhoods. At the time, 250 million children were trapped in child labor, but the child labor advocacy community was having a hard time getting people to care about them.  We needed to put a face on the problem and Stolen Childhoods promised to do just that. Robin and Len roamed around the globe filming shocking scenes of child labor—often at great peril. They fled for their lives on more than one occasion.

Their lens captured young boys on fishing platforms, young girls working as domestic servants or forced into prostitution. They filmed children laboring in stone quarries, brick kilns, and coffee plantations. They showed a range of child labor and conditions that horrified the public.

When we met, Robin and Len were interested in adding to the nearly completed Stolen Childhoods a segment about child farmworkers in the US—a vestige of child labor that still haunts America today.

At the time, I worked for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, a CLC member that had been trying to highlight this issue for years. Through our contacts with local farmworker groups in Texas, we helped Robin and Len locate working children hidden on back country roads in the vast expanse of Texas.

I accompanied Robin and Len on the shoot for a few days, and watched them film dozens of children working with razor-sharp scissors, harvesting onions for about a penny a pound. Temperatures were in the high 90s and sometimes went over 100. One girl, 10, was so sick she could barely talk. One small boy, also 10, worked barefoot at a pace that most men could not match. The work was back-breaking and many families had three generations toiling in the fields. It wasn’t difficult to see what the future held for many children.

Robin and Len worked tirelessly to get their story. Robin stood in the fields with a video camera and several still cameras draped over his shoulders and on his belt, going back and forth, shooting stills in color and black and white. He was so covered in cameras, he almost didn’t look human.

Field shots were followed by visits to some of the homes of the workers 90 miles away. Robin would put in a 10 hour day and then once back at the hotel, chain smoke a few cigarettes and go for a long run. I didn’t know how he did it. “He had no body clock,” said Pharis Harvey. Eventually, “he would just collapse.”

Other films followed. In 2010, he and Dutch journalist Miki Mastrati made The Dark Side of Chocolate, unveiling the hidden child labor and trafficking in West Africa that helps produce the chocolate that we all love. In 2011, he directed The Harvest/La Cosecha, a feature length film that explored the physical and emotional toll on three child farmworkers.

The NGO community heralded these films, organizing public education and advocacy around each of them. Robin pushed tirelessly for solutions to the problems he exposed; regularly participating in our Child Labor Coalition strategy sessions long after his films were made.

Occasionally, he would get groups to pay for his brilliant photography, but when they could not find the budget for them, he shared them for free. He knew we needed the ammunition for the war we were waging. “He went everywhere and shot everything,” noted Harvey.

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What Will 2014 Hold for Those Trying to Reduce Child Labor and Forced Labor in Uzbekistan’s Cotton Harvest?

For several years, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which the National Consumers League co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, has worked closely with the Cotton Campaign to reduce child labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.

Uzbekistan, run by totalitarian dictator Islam Karimov is the only country in the world where the central government has recently played a major role in causing large-scale forced child labor.  For many years, Uzbekistan’s leaders emptied schools and literally forced school children—sometimes very small children—to harvest cotton, a grueling, painful, sometimes dangerous job. The country is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, and Uzbek cotton sometimes finds its way into the U.S. apparel industry, despite a pledge by more than 130 apparel companies that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their garments.

For years, Uzbek children worked beside similarly conscripted college students and older adults for four to eight weeks at a time, missing much-needed school in the process. The workers were paid so little that their forced labors should be considered a form of temporary slavery. Those who refused were expelled from school, fired from their jobs, denied public benefits, or worse. Some harvesters have reported being beaten because they did not meet their cotton quota.  The forced labor of children and adults did not enrich struggling local farmers, but benefited the country’s ruling elite.

Despite aggressive advocacy by the Cotton Campaign, Karimov had intractably refused to ease the use of child labor and forced labor. Recently, however, the situation in Uzbekistan has shown signs of changing.

Advocacy by the Cotton Campaign led to a very surprising success in last summer, when the US State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) country-by-country report and it included a downgrade of Uzbekistan to the lowest tier ranking, signaling that the Uzbek government was simply not doing enough to reduce forced labor and the worst forms of child labor in the country.

Although the advocacy community had worked hard and long to bring about this downgrade—and it was completely deserved—it was still something of a pleasant surprise. The US government has many strategic concerns in Uzbekistan related to supply routes for the war in Afghanistan, and it was assumed that the State Department would not be willing to issue the deserved downgrade for fear of alienating Uzbek leaders. Fortunately, the State Department honored the intent of the TIP report and in so doing, applied additional pressure to the Uzbek government.

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