On April 16, the World Day Against Child Slavery, most Americans were probably more preoccupied with escaping the clutches of the I.R.S. than with helping children escape from slavery That is unfortunate because as U.S. and European consumers directly contribute to the problem, they could contribute to its resolution.
The Spanish Confederation of Religious reports that slavery is part of the daily lives of most consumers in the affluent world, who are unwitting collaborators in the theft of 400 million childhoods. The bananas consumers eat, the coffee they drink “might have been produced by the sweat of Latin American and African children,” according to the confederation, and “the carpets on which [they] walk have been woven by little Pakistani slaves.” Hundreds of other consumer goods are similarly produced by the illegal and compelled labor of children.
The problem crosses all continents and borders. In India and Afghanistan, children work in construction; in Myanmar, in sugar cane fields. In China they prepare explosives and fireworks; and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands extract minerals used for computers, mobile phones and many other of the developed world’s commonplace gadgets.
The choice of April 16 as the date for this annual commemoration is not random. Iqbal Masih had worked as a slave in Pakistan’s textile industry since the age of 4, but managed to escape at 10 to become a global voice for the liberation of children. He was murdered on April 16, 1995, at the age of 12 by agents of Pakistan’s textile mafia. This little boy’s voice was silenced by death. The silence of consumers has been had much more cheaply.
Googling a Masterpiece
The Google Art Project may eventually prove as beneficial and as popular as Google Maps or as controversial as Google Books. For Google’s undertakings tend to be global in scope and threaten existing copyright laws, among other concerns. Now in its second year of development, the Art Project contains an online collection of 32,000 works of art submitted by 151 museums from 40 countries, with text in 18 languages. Not every great museum has shared works (neither the Louvre nor the Vatican museums, for example, are participating), but that could change. The art now on view includes paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs, manuscripts and artifacts. Most images are high-resolution, which allows users to explore and magnify them inch by inch—something a museumgoer cannot do.
The potential of Google Art is staggering. All users, not only art specialists, can consult the same resource, where art is available in a single place, searchable at high speed. With Internet access, a child in some remote corner of the earth, who may never set foot in any art museum or have occasion to peruse an expensive art book, can examine masterpieces from around the world amassed over centuries. An education section full of self-tests and projects allows users to curate their own exhibition. Other features include a partial tour of the White House with Michelle Obama and professional videos on YouTube.com/googleartproject. Online technology makes possible the democratization of knowledge, and Google has proved itself to be a cultural leader in this important respect.
Requiem for the 8-Hour Day?
May Day is celebrated in 80 nations around the world as International Workers’ Day, an expression of the day’s historical connection to the long struggle for the eight-hour day (and, not coincidentally, a memorial for St. Joseph the Worker). May Day offers an annual reminder that working conditions most people now take for granted were earned at often mortal cost by previous generations of workers.
Today a combination of historical amnesia, declining union power, technological innovation and high rates of unemployment collude to threaten the eight-hour standard. The ascendancy of the “independent contractor” in place of wage or salaried employees and the remarkable capacity of mobile gadgets lift limits on working hours. Lunch hour is conducted between mouthfuls over a computer, and “flex time” structures can mean the clock is never punched as modern workers “manage work flow” after hours and over the weekend.
Surveying labor history this May Day suggests too much—sick time, overtime compensation, humane work schedules and safety nets for the unemployed—has been taken for granted, and too many hard-won victories have been surrendered without a fight by contemporary laborers. In May 1891 “Rerum Novarum,” in an attempt to address the rising social unrest expressed by the eight-hour day movement, acknowledged the dignity and importance of work and demanded minimum standards of rights and responsibilities for both workers and employers. It is “neither just nor human” to “grind [working people] down with excessive labor” (No. 42), Pope Leo XIII wrote. In an era of both high productivity and high unemployment, with compensation flat for decades and working people greatly enfeebled as a social force, the pope’s admonition remains worth attending to.