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Stolen Childhoods

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 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.

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C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
We in the US must understand that the battle of economic systems has largely ended with the demise of the great socialist (mostly dictatorial) nations of the last century, and we won, which has resulted in highly competitive nations with even those still nominally communist, such as China, with largely free market economies at the factory level. The result is we will have to work as hard and as intelligently as ever to maintain a competitive position. Certainly we can no longer accept the fewest days and hours of classroom instruction and bottom half performance in our public shool system and even hope to keep our middle class prosperous.
We also have to recognize that we in the US don't work as hard and long as we think we do. A recent study pointed out that both our neighbors to our north and our south work longer hours than we do here.
One thing is certain: the international economy is quite highly competitive. There is no international union to increase wages and reduce hours worked among nations.
Katherine Schlaerth
6 years 8 months ago
I agree with the above.  The imbalance created today is partially because wage earners must support the unemployed with food stamps, unemployment insurance and health care mandated by the government. THis creates inequality of free time between workers and non-workers. Employers have discovered that we who are employed can and will work harder to keep our positions, (and many employers also work a great many more hours a day themselves)
Government handouts, however well advised, must be done on a local and not a federal level to once again balance the inequalities in personal time between workers and non-workers. Private enterprise must not be taxed out of existence, but permitted through advantageous tax laws to employ more people .
Many unemployed have given up looking for work. Others participate in the great underground economy while also taking unemployment insurance, food stamps etc. Meanwhile the working segment of the population is forced to spend more hours at work, and when off work, must still participate electronically by being "on call".
My wish is that those making the laws could see what is really  going on with our economy. Maybe people like Obama and Pelosi ought to spend more time in factories, ER's  farms and "mom and pop" businesses and less time raising campaign funds in Beverly Hills
Leslie Rabbitt
6 years 8 months ago
I for one refuse to be available 24/7 to my employer and y cell phone is customarily on only between the hours of 8 am and 7 pm.  As an "exempt" hospital administrator, I work with colleagues who proclaim their employment is not a mere "job", but a "lifestyle".

Our loving Creator Himself rested - not only in the "evening" of every day of Creation - when He looked upon His day's work and declared it "good" - but also on the Day of Rest - the Sabbath.

When my ego whispers to me to work longer than a 10 hour day during the week and to work on weekends - I take notice.  That whisper is the temptation to pride. 
Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
The "ascendancy" of the independent contractor, "flex time" and virtual offices are not all bad.  I became a  an independent contractor in order to achieve a work-family balance that was not achievable any other way. With young children at home, a 2 hour RT commute each day, a 9 hour office day (1 hour required for lunch), and little or no flexibility as to times, I decided that something had to give.  Becoming an independent contractor worked for us because we did have one salaried worker (with health insurance benefits). As the primary person in charge of children and home, I found that the flexibility of hours and working primarily from home allowed me to continue to pursue my career interests without having to put aside my desire to be home when my children were home and to have a schedule that allowed me to be a room parent, field trip chaperone, and chauffeur to after-school and weekend activities. I wouldn't have missed it for anything, but I couldn't have done it without being an independent contractor. In addition, since I worked mostly from home (occasional office meetings), I did not add another car to the congestion. I often worked at night after kids were in bed, and sometimes on weekends.   More people could have both a career and more family time if employers were willing to extend the option of virtual work to more employees whose primary tools are computers and telephones.

Francis Gindhart
6 years 8 months ago
Only when a society is committed to good working conditions and wages sufficient to support family life can we begin to revive the 8-hour day with a wage structure based on it.   Today, the vast amount of unpaid labor beyond the 8-hour window is staggering, leaving the actual hourly wage a mirage.  And when it requires multiple wage earners with multiple jobs to amass what is needed to support a family, it is clear that something is very wrong.  One answer is to have wages reflect not just the labor market but the productivity returns that labor now rarely or never sees.  It is these productivity gains that have produced the immense income gap that is rapidly diminishing the middle class and leaving the bottom underpaid, unemployed or underemployed.  For those who insist that productivity gains belong only to capital and management, then society must use its taxing power to provide human dignity and family secutiry to those excluded from a civilized vork force.
Chris Brune
6 years 8 months ago
I would like to respond to Regina (Comment #2).

Both my wife and I lost our jobs in 2008/2009. We have applied for jobs and worked temp assignments to stretch the Unemployment, but eventually it ran out. Now we survive with the help of our adult children and by starting our own businesses.

Now, why, over the course of three years, have we not been able to get work? We are both in our 60s and highly experienced. Answer: Nobody wants you when you are our age. It is as  simple as that. Even if you say you are willing to work for less than your experience and credentials merit, they all want someone who is young and perky. (I look young enough, but I don't do perky.)

We paid into Unemployment all our working lives (over 40 years for each of us). We were always so confident of our skills and work ethic that we never thought we would need it, but we were glad to pay, so that it would be there for those poor unfortunates who would. After all, do not the Gospels that remind us, we are our brother's keeper?

Thank Heaven Unemployment was there when we joined the ranks of those poor unfortunates. It has carried us through the nightmare of the past three years as our retirement funds and the equity in our home all evaporated thanks to the disastrous policies of the previous Republican administration, sending out endless resumes and cover letters (or worse, entering them into online job application limbo) and never even getting so much as an acknowledgement.

Regina: Don't be so smug. I am glad you are doing well. But no matter how many hours you work, your job will disappear when your employer discovers that it is in his best interest to get rid of you. When that happens, I am sure you will be first in line at the Unemployment office to sign up for this government program. Fr. Richard Rohr says, "Pray for one good humiliation each day." Nothing more humiliating than being booted out of the workforce in spite of years of solid effort and achievement.

We have taken a shock, but we will bounce back. And so will millions of Americans who have the helping hand of important government programs like Unemployment to get them through the tough times.

Life is unfair. Years ago, Americans made a pact: We will all contribute so that the less fortunate in our society can at least have a minimal level of subsistence. Our government, the only institution that can organize and coordinate the effort of all the people of the country, administers this process. I have always been happy to kick in, especially now that I find myself among those who are struggling to maintain that minimal level.

Now you can look at this two ways: You can say that the government is taking money away from me and giving it to a passel of ne'er do wells who don't deserve it. Or you can say that the American people, as a society, are acting on the Gospel message of charity as explained to us by Jesus Himself.

Your call.

mike giffin
6 years 8 months ago
Strange how so many contemporary Christians in the wealthiest nation on earth follow the rich, yet grieving, young man who leaves Christ (Mtt 19:20-22) and therefore never hears His judgement (Mtt 25:34-36).  And do so in the name of a supposedly more pure political, social, and economic ideology.
Vince Killoran
6 years 8 months ago
Thank you Chris Bruno for your personal, and all to familiar, story. There are so many people out there who are just getting by-and many are doing less than that.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
Chris (#25),
Your experience is an example of an important safety net functioning properly. The problem is and has been those who game the system and use it improperly. An example is a common phenomenon I experienced for years in my restaurant. Required to submit evidence that they had sought employment to have continued unemployment checks, recipients would come early in their qualifying period to have me fill out their forms that they had applied. They would come disinterested and often disheveled in personal appearance. Then the same recipients would come back a week or two before their qualifying period ended and genuinely apply for the job, showing proper interest and dress. The system, in effect, was gamed, and government money wasted.
Our call, you ask? To separate the genuine users of government resources from the fraudulent ones so that scare dollars go to the genuine, not the fraudulent.
6 years 8 months ago

"Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person...Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community...All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable." The American Catholic bishops stated these principles 25 years ago. It is is amazing to me that since then, in the wake of the savings and loans crisis (1986-1991), Enron (2001) and the current financial crisis (2008-present), the default stance for so many is still an attempt to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor and that stance's focus is still on those at the very bottom of the economic ladder - the unemployed, underemployed and poorly paid. When the spotlight is on those higher on the ladder, the reponse seems to be that of the CEO of Goldman Sachs who claims he is simply "doing God's work." I suppose that is one lens through which to view the question of economic justice.

Let me suggest that Matthew 19:24 and 25: 31-46 might be a better lens.


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