Man-to-Man with Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition

Cameron Conaway sits down with Reid Maki to discuss child labor exploitation and how responsible consumers can bring change

Reid Maki is the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) Coordinator and the Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards at the National Consumers League (NCL). The groups work hand-in-hand with each other. While the CLC works to provide a voice for minors and promote educational outreach initiatives both within the community and via legislation, the NCL works to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the US and abroad.

Reid, we talk often here at the Good Men Project about good men but perhaps not enough about what brought them to be good men. Your current fight against labor exploitation and for education is inspiring, but can you give us some background on you? What in your past pushed you to your present work?

As a young boy, I became aware of the plight of migrant farmworkers in the U.S.—in part, because I was an admirer of Senator Robert Kennedy, who met with César Chávez when he ended his fast for better farmworker conditions in 1968. I was also a huge fan of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie who each wrote often and movingly  about farmworkers in their novels and songs, respectively. This interest led me to jobs with organizations that provided services to the farmworker community. In doing this work, I became aware that one of the main reasons farmworker families were trapped in dire poverty was the rampant child labor occurring in U.S. fields. Migrant kids were dropping out at astronomical rates. My organization began advocating for child labor laws in the U.S. so that a 12-year-old would no longer face a 12-hour day in 100-degree heat, performing back-breaking labor. Fourteen years later, and now with the Child Labor Coalition and the National Consumers League, I’m still engaged in that fight!

Florence Kelley, the first executive secretary for the National Consumers League, once said: “To buy means to have power, to have power means to have responsibility.” As the organization approaches its 115-year anniversary, can you provide a few tangible examples of results sparked by her and this concept?

Florence Kelley–and later Frances Perkins–and an army of women (they were mostly women) had remarkable success convincing the powers-that-be that child labor in U.S. factories was detrimental to the well-being of children. Working with organized labor, they helped pass state legislation to improve working conditions for women and children, often limiting work for both. These efforts culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the late 1930s. This watershed legislation guarantees many of the workplace rights we all take for granted now and it removed most forms of child labor. Unfortunately, Congress exempted U.S. agriculture from the bill’s child labor protections.

People are moved emotionally when they hear of child labor – be it cocoa slaves in the Ivory Coast or shipbreaking slaves in Chittagong – but many feel it doesn’t directly effect them or that they are too far removed to make a difference. How would you counter this? How does a child slave thousands of miles away impact us here at home?

Man’s inhumanity to man always diminishes us. In recent years, much debate has focused around how some of these impoverished children may succumb to terrorist movements and lash out with violence—a direct consequence that may be felt by Western nations. I worry even more about all the sacrificed futures that come with the worst forms of child labor – often for the benefit of the consumer countries. We are also losing so much human potential from lives lost to child labor, whether it be a child chained to the loom making carpets for rich Westerners or a little girl sold into sexual slavery to brothel owners. Far too many children are being physically harmed by work and educationally stunted by child labor. One thing that concerns me is complacency—the belief that child labor is a necessary evil, created by poverty. I think it is important to remind fellow citizens of the world that child labor is not just a symptom of poverty, it is a cause of poverty.

I ask consumers, if we buy the products of child labor, are we not the cause of the child labor? As consumers and members of the world community, don’t we have a responsibility to help ensure that all children have a right to an education, a right to play, and a right to realize their full potential?

Lastly, how can our readers get involved and stay updated with what you’re doing at the Child Labor Coalition and the National Consumer’s League?

There are many ways to get involved. In many democratic countries, like the U.S., writing letters of concern to political leaders can be surprisingly effective. Politicians like to be re-elected and they respond to the wishes of their constituents. Signing on-line petitions and letters of concern is a good place to start. Consumers can and should express their concerns to company leadership and store managers and buy according to their values. Today, child labor news is relatively easy to follow through social media. The CLC has a web site– www.stopchildlabor.org –that regularly posts child labor news. So do many of its members, including one, Media Voices for Children, that collects child labor stories in written and video format. Interested readers can also follow the CLC (@ChildLaborCLC), CLC members, you, and other great individuals and groups on Twitter who frequently tweet under the #ChildLabor hashtag. Readers may also send me an email at [email protected] to be placed on our child labor news list serve.

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About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.

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