Book note: Children laboring ‘Before Their Time’

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Most of us would like to think that child labor, if it exists at all, is merely a vestige of an older economic era, relegated to the margins of the modern economy, lurking in the shadows of economic development and modernization. Surely a potent combination of human rights talk, automation and technological change, the information economy, and 21st century globalization has pushed child labor into the dustbin of history. Surely…

But, as so many say, seeing is believing. Documentary photographer Dr. David Parker offers us plenty to look at, and it’s plenty disturbing. Over the past fifteen years, largely on his own dime, Parker has traveled the world, from Peru and Bolivia to Mexico and Nicaragua, from Turkey to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, from Morocco to Sierra Leone—and many, many places in between. An occupational epidemiologist by training and a largely self-taught photographer, Parker has sought out children at work as his subject of choice, and, although gaining access to private workplaces in order to take some photographs might have been challenging, he has found no shortage of scenes to catch his interest.

Before Their Time by David Parker with an introduction by Tom Harkin, 160-page hardcover published by Quantuck Lane Press ($35.00). Also at the TC Daily Planet: see an interview with David Parker and a gallery of images from Before Their Time.

Viewers of his striking photographs might easily lose track of the particular settings, might easily imagine that these pictures could have been taken anywhere. Before Their Time is organized by industry–agriculture and husbandry, mines and stone quarries, brick workers, textiles and other manufacturing, street workers, and garbage picking and begging. Each industry includes photographs from many countries, photographs whose human subjects seem more like each other—brick workers from India, Nepal, Peru, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, for instance—than culturally or physically distinct. Skin tone, facial shape, hair texture, and the like fade in significance, while facial expressions of stress, strain, and seriousness seem like more compelling common denominators. Even those occasional demonstrations of joy, light-heartedness—yes, childhood—seem manifestations of a common grammar, if not vocabulary, of child labor. Parker’s images insist that this is a unifying experience.

And it is an experience growing more common rather than less in the modern global economy. In the late 1970s, the global estimate for child laborers was about 80 million, and scholars were predicting it would be cut in half by 2000. Instead, today there are an estimated 320 million children at work around the world! Before Their Time compels us to ask why. This, I would argue, is its greatest service, calling our attention to the tragic reality that child labor is integral to the new global economy rather than a vestige of some past arrangements.

The contemporary global economy is organized by the principles of economic neo-liberalism: a philosophy, a set of organizing ideas and structures, which is anything but “liberal” in the ways that we usually think of the term. Rather, it is “liberal” in the classical, late 18th-century, Adam Smith, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo way. It is “liberal” in the ways that the market and its “laws” of supply and demand was construed by its advocates as a liberatory response to the regulatory regimens of the mercantilist and colonial economies. Hence, being “neoliberal” means desiring to “free” the market from the burden of government regulations (of trade, labor, the environment, etc.) and the cost of government-provided services. It means reducing the cost of all elements of supply (labor, energy, raw materials, overhead) for the private sector and the cost of government-provided services (and the taxes that fund them). It promotes the regime of “lean and mean” and what Jeremy Brecher, in his book Global Village or Global Pillage calls “a race to the bottom.” Wages plummet, government-provided safety nets are shredded, state-owned enterprises (railroads, telephones, electric utilities, and the like) are sold off to private bidders, and the funding of public education is slashed.

Some scholar-activists have suggested that neoliberalism has brought with it a return to what Karl Marx, at the end of Volume I of Das Kapital, called “primitive accumulation.” Through the enclosure of the commons in Britain, the expulsion of tenants and serfs across western Europe, and the dissolution of earlier modes of elite obligation to the poor, a new class was created in the 17th and 18th centuries: a class that had nothing to live on but its ability to sell its labor. Today, capital scours the globe in pursuit of cheap labor and “pro-business” environments. Families are compelled to sell as much labor as they can marshal in order to survive, including the labor of their children.

The last round of “primitive accumulation,” hundreds of years ago, was witnessed only by those who were in the midst of it. Today’s version, thanks to dedicated and talented photographers like David Parker, can be witnessed by all of us. Parker’s images are compelling. Many of the young girls and boys look directly into the lens of the camera, and, through it, they make eye contact with us. We witness their humanity, not only as it is being drained, but also as it struggles to express itself, to fight back, to claim its voice. And they ask us: What will you do?

How will we answer?

Peter Rachleff (rachleff@macalester.edu) is Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul.

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