The man who fought to make child labor a crime against humanity came to Washington, D.C., last week with a message for America and its new president.
Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for his efforts to end child labor, urged U.S. lawmakers to fight for the freedom of 168 million children forced to work due to poverty, trafficking or slavery.
Those in power have a duty to “protect and care for our young people,” says the 63-year-old founder of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation.
A former engineer who turned to activism decades ago, Satyarthi successfully pressured the International Labour Organization to prohibit child labor in 1999. We spoke to him about whether employing children can ever be justified, a new Bollywood movie in which he’s a character and what advice he has for America’s new president.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the appeal of hiring children to work? Are there not enough workers?
Adults are more expensive labor. Children can be confined [against their will] to work [longer hours], which happens in Bangladesh, Africa, Latin America, Nepal. Children are preferred because of that.
It’s hard for consumers to know whether products were made by children, but you helped come up with a solution for carpets. In the 1990s, you supported Rugmark, a special tag for carpets made free of child labor. How did it work?
I talked to congressmen and senators and trade unions and said: If you keep using those carpets in your drawing rooms with pride that these beautiful hand-knotted carpets were made in Pakistan, Nepal or India, you are responsible for the perpetuation of slavery.
I told them: I am not asking you to boycott all those carpets. I’m asking you to buy carpets which are guaranteed to be free of child labor.
Today, we have seen the decline of child labor in the three countries where we have been working. In 15 years it has gone from 1 million to hardly 200,000.
Through your charity Save the Childhood Movement, you staged rescue missions to free over 83,000 children and adults working in slavery. Can you tell me about one kid who made an impression?
There was a child I freed from the carpet industry in India. His name was Kalu. He was enslaved for about six years and he was freed by me in a very risky operation. At that time he was about 11 or 12.
He was a bright child. He lived in one of our three rehab centers, where he went to school. He topped his class and helped other children, so we promoted him.
In the last days of Clinton’s presidency, I invited Kalu to join me at an event with President Clinton [in Washington, D.C.]. By that time Kalu was 13 or 14. Kalu said to Mr. Clinton: “You are the most powerful person on earth.” The president smiled. “I am fortunate enough to be freed, but you as the president can do much more. What are you doing for children like me?”
Did President Clinton do anything?
Within a week, the U.S. increased its support to the ILO for the eradication of child labor from $6 million to $30 million. That was pure leadership on Kalu’s part. If given an opportunity, these children can speak truth to power.
You believe child labor can lead to extremism.
If you stop children from entering good, quality free education, you are creating more tension and violence in the world. The illiteracy and exploitation of children, the growing inequality of children, is the most serious threat.
These children can be brainwashed for extremism or terrorism. They’re vulnerable. If we were investing enough in education in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan where we see these problems, we might not be facing threats today.
Is all child labor bad? In some cases children bring much-needed income to their families.
That is the most commonly asked question. All child labor is bad.
An actor named Boman Irani is playing you in an upcoming Bollywood film called “Jhalki” — about a girl trying to free her brother who has been trafficked for child labor.
This man playing my role has never met me, but he has fallen in love with me! The other day, he said [he was] watching my YouTube speeches and [videos about my] life. He knows more about me than many of my peers.
What message do you have for Americans?
I would like to appeal to the president and the administration: No problem in the world can be solved in isolation.
America is not on a different planet. If we want to create a secure world, we have to send a message across the world that all children are our children.
The children who are victims of slavery or trafficking, the vulnerable seeking refuge in other countries, they are our children — be it Syrian, Afghan, Yemeni. This should be the strong message from a country which has been championing human rights and democracy.