June 12th is the World Day against Child Labor. The most recent global estimates suggest some 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are involved in child labor, with boys and girls in this age group almost equally affected. The issue of child labor is not just an overseas problem, but exists in our own backyard. Children, particularly immigrant children, are vulnerable to forced labor here in North America, whether in domestic servitude, in farming and agricultural operations, or in forced begging or door to door sales schemes. For example, in Mexico, migrant children frequently work to harvest agricultural crops destined for the U.S. with their parents, despite obvious dangers to their physical health and development.
Pope Francis has spoken extensively about the harm that child labor causes. During last year’s World Day against Child Labor, he stated that the persistence of child labor is rooted in several factors including poverty and lack of decent work for adults, lack of social protection. The Holy Father has urged us to “renew our commitment, especially families, to ensure the tutelage of every boy’s and girl’s dignity and the chance to grow up healthy.”
Continuing his call to address root causes related to child and forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery, Pope Francis entitled his annual message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, on January 1, 2015, “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.” In that message, Holy Father extorted organizations in civil society to awaken consciences and promote whatever steps are necessary for combating and uprooting the culture of enslavement. He also called upon businesses to ensure dignified working conditions and to be vigilant to ensure that forms of subjugation or human trafficking do not find their way into companies’ distribution chains. Lastly, he called upon every person to be aware that purchasing is always a moral—and not simply an economic—act.
When examining the root causes of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking, it is hard to see where we as individuals can begin to understand and combat the problem. Yet, Pope Francis highlights an important part of combatting child and forced labor—looking at global supply chains and encouraging businesses to remove human trafficking and forced and child labor from their distribution chains and allowing consumers to consume more mindfully and ethically. Governments are taking note of this movement and doing their part as well. Soon a bill will be introduced that aims to help make businesses more aware of their use of child and forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery. Supply chain legislation would require certain companies to report to the U.S. government about efforts to address human trafficking, forced and child labor, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children within their business operations and list that information on their websites. These disclosures would allow consumers to make informed decisions about what products they buy and which socially responsible companies to invest in.
Supply chain legislation represents an important step in answering Pope Francis’s call to combat and uproot the culture of enslavement. An important action that we as individual Catholics can take is to be ethical consumers. We must make every effort to purchase goods not connected to child labor, worker abuses, or human trafficking.” In this way, we can heed Holy Father’s words and erase this “scourge of humanity” from the world in our lifetime.
Ashley Feasley is a policy advisor for Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.