Children working in a brick factory in Pakistan Children working in a brick factory in Pakistan  ((c) Missio Österreich)

Greater public awareness needed to stem child slavery

Christoph Lehermayr of "Missio Austria" says consumers’ awareness and behaviour in developed countries are the first steps in fighting the scourge of child slavery and labour that affects millions of children across the world. In an interview with Vatican News marking the International Day Against Child Slavery, Lehermayr speaks of the work carried out by Church organizations to free children from bonded labour.

By Christine Seuss and Lisa Zengarini

April 16 is the International Day Against Child Slavery promoted by the Christian Cultural Movement (Movimiento Cultural Cristiano -MCC), a Spanish-based Catholic lay organization engaged in social justice and human rights advocacy.

Iqbal Masih

The inspiration behind this annual observance is 12-year-old Pakistani Christian slave, Iqbal Masih, who was murdered on April 16, 1995, for exposing the ‘carpet mafia’ that thrived on child slaves.

Iqbal, who had been a victim of slavery in the carpet industry in Punjab for six years, had helped over 3,000 Pakistani children escape their bonded slavery and made speeches about child labour throughout the world.  His activism brought him international recognition.

In 1994 he received the Reebok Youth in Action Award.  He inspired the creation of organizations such as “Free the Children”, in Canada, and the Iqbal Masih Shaheed Children Foundation, which has over 20 schools in Pakistan.  He was awarded the “World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child” posthumously in 2000. The United States Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labour Affairs (ILAB) has the annual “Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labour”.

Since his murder the Christian Cultural Movement has been campaigning against child slavery worldwide, emphasizing that this form of exploitation is different from child labour, as in this case children are forced to work to pay off a family debt and have no way to leave the person exploiting them. Though child labour is not necessarily slavery, it hinders children’s education and development, and  in its worst forms it includes  hazardous work endangering their health and even their lives. 

Listen to the interview

At least 160 million children forced into labour

Poverty is of course the main driver of the different forms of child labour which affects at least 160 million children globally. Labour exploitation, malnutrition and ill-treatment are the daily bread and butter for millions of children around the world, especially in the Global South. 

Vatican News spoke with Christoph Lehermayr, lead editor of Allewelt magazine of the Austrian missionary organization Missio, who has conducted several investigations into the appalling conditions in which child slaves are forced to work in the brick industry in Pakistan and has also reported on the exploitation of children in the notorious cobalt mines of Kolwezi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Christoph Lehermay in DR Congo
Christoph Lehermay in DR Congo

Church organizations' efforts to end child labour and slavery

In the interview with  Christine Seuss,  he spoke about the Church’s efforts and initiatives to free children from slavery, which include primarily offering their families an alternative source of income so their children can go to school rather than work. “Parents – he explained - are often forced to make their children work, but if they have an alternative income, they are prepared to send their children to school to  get an education.”

Mr Lehermayr cited, amongst others, the example of the Good Shepherd Sisters in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they have founded over seven schools for children who used to work in the cobalt mines. Again, he insisted, it is important to provide alternative sources of income for their families “Christian communities are very active in doing this”, he said.  

Children working in the cobalt mines in DR Congo
Children working in the cobalt mines in DR Congo

Promoting public awareness and monitoring  global supply chains

Mr Lehermayr also remarked on the need to act on the consumer's side to stem child labour and slavery, making the public in developed nations aware of the problem: “When we buy a T-shirt for 3 Euro, we should ask ourselves where it comes from.”

Furthermore, he said, organizations working on the ground on this issue, including Christian organizations, must also be supported to help identify and mitigate child labour risks in global supply chains.

Christoph Lehermayr with a child in Pakistan
Christoph Lehermayr with a child in Pakistan

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16 April 2024, 16:50