I remember checking into a small hotel in Coimbra, Portugal, with my wife Gerry in 1962, three very heavy suitcases in tow. Rushing out at the urgent clang of the desk clerk's bell came a uniformed bellhop. A midget, I supposed. But, no, it was a child, nine, maybe ten years old.
He smiled shyly and tugged at the suitcases, eager to lug them up the long, narrow staircases that led to our room. I wouldn't let go, but the clerk insisted. "It's his job," senhor."
It was indeed his job, one that paid poorly and kept him from school – but a job necessary for his family's survival.
There were millions of others like him, aged 5 to 15, throughout southern Europe, and Asia and Africa and Latin America, making up as much as one-third of the workforces in some countries. And there still are – fifty years later.
Although most countries have laws against child labor, and it is banned by United Nations' conventions, there are at least 200 million children now at work in 71 countries.
Many work in slave-like conditions for up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on farms, in mines, in factories and elsewhere, to produce goods for sale in this country – food and metal products, jewelry and clothing, toys, carpets, furniture, electronic components, shoes, fireworks, matches, rugs, soccer balls, leather goods, paper cups and much more. Some, like the bellhop we encountered, work in hard, poor paying menial service jobs.
Most must work, whatever the conditions, if their families are to survive. Among them are children sold into bondage by starving parents or put to work to pay off loans made to their parents. Their wages are never enough to erase the debts and are further eroded by exorbitant charges for living accommodations and tools, and fines for "unsatisfactory work."
Many are forced to live in cramped, dirty housing compounds near their workplaces, some as virtual prisoners forbidden to leave without passes from their overseers.
Many of the workplaces are owned, at least in part, by U.S.-based corporations or by local employers under contract to such corporations.
The youngsters' childhood is denied them. They have little time for play and none for schooling. Like their parents, they are doomed to a life of hard work under abysmal and often dangerous conditions, a life of poverty, ignorance and exploitation.
It could be better for them if the United States would use its great economic strength to challenge the growth of child labor in negotiating trade agreements with nations that allow or encourage the practice. The United States could at least refuse to trade with nations where child labor is common, making U.S. agreement to trade pacts contingent on its trading partners cracking down on child labor.
Given the corporate-oriented stance of Democratic and Republican leaders alike, the prospects for U.S. action are slight. And without U.S. support nothing meaningful can be done to stem the steady growth of child labor.
The nations in which the abuses occur won't act for fear that would increase labor costs and thus put them at a disadvantage in the highly competitive world market. The United Sates and other major economic powers won't act for fear of reducing corporate profits.
That leaves consumers, people like you and me who buy the goods made by children for the great profit of their employers. It's up to us to find out just what those goods are and refuse to buy them, and to let President Obama, Congress and those who sell the goods know why we are refusing to buy them, and will continue to do so as long as children are used to produce them.
You can be sure that if we don't act, no one else will. Only we can save the children.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com