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A brutal choice: work or starve

SHADAB is 9. Since he was 6, he has spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, squatting in semidarkness on damp ground, polishing little pieces of metal on a high-speed grinding wheel. In the lock factory near New Delhi where he works, the gloom is broken only by a few narrow shafts of light entering through holes in the brick walls, and by a single light bulb. The air is visibly, palpably thick with metal dust, the temperature about 120 degrees F. The bare floor is damp with acid that sloshes from big vats onto the ground.

Shadab is a bright-eyed child with an eager smile and a quick intelligence. He is small and alarmingly thin. Though his skin is normally brown, by noon every inch of him has turned a metallic gray-black, coated with metal dust. His hair is stiff with it. His voice is hoarse with it.

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All around the child, the unprotected belts that drive the grinding wheels whir. Metal pieces rasp and clang. When Shadab bends over to work, his face a few inches from his wheel, splinters of metal occasionally fly up into his eyes. He has never seen a pair of safety goggles.

Shadab says he likes his job. He likes making money - about 17 cents a day. His father is dead, and he is proud that his mother, two brothers, and sister depend on his contribution for survival.

The factory where Shadab works is in Aligarh, 80 miles southeast of New Delhi. It employs nine people, five of whom are under 12. The adults are paid more than three times as much as the children, though many of their tasks are the same.

By any Western definition, Shadab is exploited. Working 12 hours a day, he has never been to school; he is grossly underpaid; his health is in danger. Yet many people in developing countries might envy him his job. For his family, the alternative could be starvation.

Collecting accurate data on the numbers of children working in the world today is extremely difficult, and estimates vary widely. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are at least 58 million children under 16 working for wages outside their families. Most are in developing countries, though some work in industrialized countries, too. In the United States, 800,000 children are employed as migrant farm laborers.

Other calculations put the worldwide number of wage-earning children at between 100 million and 200 million. Asia has the largest number: In southern Asian nations, more than 60 percent of children are believed to be working. Some estimate the proportion in India to be even higher.

In addition to exploitation, child labor can deprive a young worker of freedom, separating him from his family and making him a virtual slave.

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Deep in the jungles of Peru, an estimated 3,000 children work in gold mines. Since the government began to crack down several years ago, the children have been moved farther and farther up the remotest tributaries of the Amazon. The camps are several days' journey by boat from the nearest town, and those with the most children are defended by lookouts armed with shotguns.

Ten months ago, 13-year-old Mariel Quispe was sent by her father to work as a cook in a small mining camp in the jungle. A shy and nervous girl, she explains in a whisper that she was brought to the area by an ``agent,'' and hopes to be taken home soon by the same man. But she has not heard from him since she arrived. Asked when he thinks Mariel will go home, a local landowner familiar with conditions here says: ``Never.''

The largest group of the world's child laborers work with their families in agriculture and in the home. Such work is not generally perceived to be exploitative, even though it often means the children do not go to school. According to some studies, these children, who may spend their childhood as virtual shut-ins caring for younger siblings and doing domestic chores, may not develop mentally or emotionally to their full capacity.

CHILD labor within the family is generally born of tradition and sustained by necessity. Child labor for an outside employer is born of poverty, which in turn often breeds exploitation. Children are available to work because their families need the money. Work is available for children because their labor is cheaper than that of adults and more can be demanded of them.

``Children are exploitable,'' says Ashok Narayan, India's joint secretary of labor. ``They are more docile. They work fast and they don't get tired so easily, so more work can be extracted out of them. And even if one cheats them by paying less wages, they are not in a position to detect it. These are the reasons for child labor.''

Experts point out that child labor is often most widespread in areas with the highest adult unemployment. In India's Tamil Nadu State, chronic drought has left many farmers destitute. And every day 50,000 children, some no more than five years old, are bused from their villages as early as 3 a.m. to work in the local match and fireworks factories.

Child labor also occurs in economically depressed areas where employers cannot afford to pay adult wages, or where syndicates of employers and middlemen can manipulate hiring practices in an exploitative way, drawing from a virtually inexhaustible pool of desperately poor children and adults. Researchers in India say that the owners of the match and fireworks factories in Tamil Nadu also own most of the farmland, and have deliberately withheld irrigation so that families are forced by dire necessity to send children to the factories.

In third-world countries, the potential for child exploitation is increased by the absence of unemployment insurance or welfare programs similar to those of industrialized nations. And when poor parents view children as contributors to family survival, they tend to want more children. Hence experts note that child labor can be an obstacle to population control.

The policies of the ILO specify that hazardous employment such as Shadab's should be restricted to workers 18 years old or older. India's Child Labor (Regulation) Act bans hazardous employment for workers under 15. It also calls for various safety and health measures, such as adequate lighting and ventilation and protective goggles and gloves. But government officials complain that such laws are very difficult to enforce. ILO regulations are stricter than those of many countries, and local authorities often find them unrealistic, given the present level of poverty and underdevelopment in their countries.

Many analysts say that vested interests and corruption are the reasons labor regulations are consistently ignored. Walter Fernandes, director of the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, which studies the social impact of economic trends, charges, ``Most industrialists I've interviewed said they didn't have to worry about the government machinery because they could always bribe the labor commissioners. The labor commissioners told us they dared not prosecute many industrialists because of their political clout.''

One Thai government official asks, ``If the police are corrupt, what do you do? This country has beautiful laws, just like any country. But they don't work!''

In Thailand, child labor is legal as of age 12, provided it is not hazardous. The Ministry of Labor officially counts 30,000 workers between the ages of 12 and 15. But reports by nongovernmental organizations put the figure at about 2 million, with some as young as 4 or 5, and many subject to brutal, slave-like conditions.

``Looking for a servant?'' said a smooth-talking young man with an ingratiating smile. He had emerged from an alley onto Bangkok's Rong Muang Road, a seedy street beside the railroad station that is lined with employment agencies handling underage workers.

``Want a young one?'' the man persisted. ``We have them 12, 13.''

In his ``office,'' a kind of small warehouse down the alley, he produced Dao, a shy 15-year-old who had arrived by train two days before from her village in drought-stricken northeastern Thailand.

Whoever hires Dao will pay the agency $200, and she will be bound to work for a year. The agency would not reveal how much of this sum her family receives, although her reason for coming to Bangkok is to send money home. Dao will be expected to get up every morning before her ``master,'' work as directed until he says she can stop, and go to bed after he does. Days off will be at his discretion. And there is nothing to prevent Dao from being physically or sexually abused.

WORLDWIDE, domestic work is second only to agricultural labor as a source of child employment. In Latin America, Africa, and Asia, girls and boys, sometimes beginning at age 5 or 6, may spend their entire childhood as servants in other people's homes. Many, like Dao, come to the city from impoverished rural villages, and are considered fortunate to find work. Sometimes employers treat them as ``part of the family'' but most often they do grueling work for long hours, with little remuneration. Some are virtual slaves.

``These children are like objects,'' says Blanca Figueroa, director of a women's support organization in Lima, Peru. ``They're like little animals that grow up in your home.''

The forms of child labor are as varied as the economies that spawn them. Three months' travel in 11 countries turned up children under 16 working as gold miners, cooks, street vendors, maids, porters, parking attendants, seamstresses, divers in fishing operations, gas station attendants, bus ticket collectors, rag pickers, waiters, carpet weavers, brickmakers, truck mechanics, construction workers, and employees in the glass, brass, lock, and power-loom industries.

Marcelo lives on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines. He spent three years, from ages 10 through 12, on a ship in the South China Sea working as a diver for a fishing fleet. The fishing technique, called muro-ami, requires that as many divers as possible swim shoulder to shoulder, banging a weight tied to the end of a line against the coral on the ocean floor, to scare fish into a huge net. They must also dive as deep as 100 feet in order to secure or dislodge the net. On coming up, they frequently get caught in the net, and occasionally drown. They use no diving equipment.

``One year, three boys from my ship drowned,'' says Marcelo. ``Sometimes we stayed down five minutes, deep in the water. Blood would come out of my ears and nose. Sometimes boys lost breath and never came up.''

Children are sought after for muro-ami fishing partly because they take up less space, so more divers can be crammed onto each boat.

There were more than 300 boys on Marcelo's boat, along with eight pigs being raised by one of the supervisors. The boys slept on stacked shelving. Marcelo says that the filth, cramped conditions, and lack of sanitation often resulted in illness.

`THE worst was that even when we were sick they made us dive,'' he recalls. ``If we said we were too sick to dive, they would beat us. And the younger boys, if they made a mistake, the punishment was they would be thrown in the water and held under.''

Marcelo says that each year he worked he was cheated. The last year, his agreement stated he would earn $350 for 10 months' work. Instead, he received $50.

The government banned muro-ami fishing last December, with a ``grace period'' that was scheduled to expire in June of this year. But on June 4, the ban was lifted indefinitely.

Many observers see child labor as both a consequence and a cause of poverty. A child like Shadab is often physically and mentally burned out by age 14, totally unschooled and prepared for only a simple, low-paying job. And by the time he is in his teens and needs to earn more, he may face displacement by a nine-year-old willing to work for 17 cents a day.

Child labor breeds generations of illiterate adults whose health has often been undermined by their work as children, who can barely support their families, and who will, in all likelihood, have to send their own children out to work.

Nisarem has seven children, all under 15 years old. He lives in northern Pakistan.

As a boy, he worked at a bakery from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m. He says his health is poor today because of this work. ``I was working near to fire, so all the time I have my chest in front of fire,'' Nisarem says. Today he has to take easy work in a shop, and he earns very little.

His dream has been to send his children to school and give them a better life than he has had. But so far, none of them have gone to school: Six of the seven are already working.

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