Child Labor Coalition Celebrates 20-Plus Years of Advocacy
Since its beginning, the National Consumers League (NCL) has cared deeply about the conditions under which consumer products are produced. In the early 1900s, NCL helped pass landmark state and federal laws that protected children from the horrors of child labor.
In 1989, NCL—enjoying its 90th year—helped launch the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) to ameliorate the worst forms of child labor and to protect teen workers from health and safety hazards. This November, the CLC, co-chaired by NCL and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), marks its 20-year anniversary and it is still going strong. The coalition brings together 22 groups, including several of America’s largest labor unions, committed to reducing exploitative child labor and child trafficking.
The CLC is unique: it’s only coalition here in the U.S. that is tackling a broad array of child labor issues and it is the only child labor coalition that has both a domestic and international focus. “I believe those are two of the reasons the coalition has endured for 20 years,” said NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg, who is also a co-chair of the CLC. “By bringing together both domestic and internationally-focused nonprofits our voice has carried more weight and our broad scope attracts a lot of significant organizations.”
The idea for a coalition of nonprofits, unions, and other advocacy groups to fight child labor emerged rather suddenly in 1989. Several Washington, D.C. groups had just participated in a Capitol Hill child labor forum organized by Bill Goold, an aide at the time for Congressman Don Pease (D-Ohio). The forum energized a lot of the attendees including NCL’s president Linda Golodner and Pharis Harvey, the executive director of what was then called the International Labor Rights Fund (now the International Labor Rights Forum).
Goold, Golodner, and Harvey immediately saw a need for a collaborative approach to end child labor. They wanted to combine the power of unions, nonprofits, and others concerned about the issue. A coalition of such groups, they reasoned, could leverage the resources of its individual members and speak with a stronger voices than the groups could alone.
Since he worked for a Congressman, Goold believed it wasn’t appropriate to be a member of such a coalition, so Bill Treanor, the founder of the American Youth Work Center, took his place with Harvey and Golodner as one of the original three chairs of the coalition. The Research Department at the AFL-CIO provided $10,000 in seed money and the coalition was born. Attempts to fund the coalition over the years have been difficult, noted Golodner, a co-chair of the coalition for 18 years. “It was hard, and it’s hard today,” she explained, adding that for the most part, the foundation world has turned a blind eye to the child labor issue.
Over the last two decades, the coalition has had a number of successes. Coalition members and staff wrote a model state child labor law that several U.S. states used in part. “It was really great to shape state policies in that way,” recalled Golodner. The Coalition also worked to eliminate “timed delivery” within the fast food industry, successfully ending Domino Pizza’s 30-Minute Guaranteed Delivery and preventing driver deaths and injuries.
Over the years, the CLC has held several major child labor forums and held hundreds of meetings, providing an opportunity for nonprofit advocacy groups and the federal officials charged with reducing child labor to coordinate their work and learn from one another. The CLC has also issued a number of major reports to draw the public’s attention toward the child labor issue and guide policy.
The CLC helped organize Global March Against Child Labor activities in North America, bringing much attention to the issue. “We really became the voice for child labor advocacy from the United State,” noted Darlene Adkins, a former NCL vice president and the CLC coordinator for 17 years.
“In the early years,” recalls Adkins, “our focus internationally was more on a consumer perspective: ‘We don’t want products coming into the U.S. made by child labor.’ As the years went by, we got more involved in the global discussion of child labor—‘let’s end child labor globally…let’s make sure children have access to free basic education’.”
Fifteen years ago, the CLC helped launch RugMark, the innovative, highly successful child-labor-free certification program for handmade carpets in South Asia.
In 1999, NCL and the CLC joined the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs to launch the “Children in the Fields” Campaign to reduce child labor among migrant and seasonal farmworker children, who work long hours in the fields legally through exemptions in U.S. child labor law. Today, the campaign has several fulltime staff people; with a new Congress and a new president, farmworker advocates are hopeful that a legislative remedy will soon be passed.
In many industries, it takes the bright light of public scrutiny to bring about action on a problem like child labor. The CLC focuses that light. “The League has been one of the central voices for child labor for 110 years and that is really significant,” added Adkins. “It’s been a core, central part of our mission since the league was established. We are one of just a handful of groups that have had that concern. I think that’s remarkable.”
The CLC has also continued its teen worker safety efforts, publishing an annual “Five Worst Teen Jobs” to alert parents and young workers to dangers that lurk in the work world and to help them make safe employment choices. The CLC has pushed the federal government to expand the list of jobs that are unsafe for teen workers.
In September 2008, Sally Greenberg testified on behalf of the CLC and urged the Department of Labor to greatly expand its number of child labor investigators. When Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis took office this year, adding labor inspectors was one of the first things she did.
In the last year, several great groups returned or joined the CLC: the International Labor Right Forum, Human Rights Watch, World Vision, and UNICEF USA. A reinvigorated International Committee has identified two priority issues for the CLC to focus its attention toward: state-sponsored child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest and the exploitation of young children as domestic servants. Child farmworkers remain the domestic focus of the coalition.
According to the International Labour Organization, the number of child laborers in the world fell 11 percent in the first half of this decade. The number of children in the world engaged in hazardous work—still 126 million in 2004—fell by a stunning 26 percent over a four-year period. “We believe that groups like the CLC and its members and other similar groups around the world in collaboration with concerned governments have had a lot to do with those falling totals,” said Greenberg. “In the area of teen worker safety here in the U.S., the number of young workers killed on the job has decreased by nearly 50 percent over the last decade. Clearly, the hard work of a lot of groups like our coalition is paying off.”