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Johnson urges unions to fight to end child labor

Vowing that the AFT would never "shrink from the fight" of working to eradicate child labor, AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson told an international audience that even within the United States, children are vulnerable to exploitation.

"On American farms, teenagers routinely operate heavy machinery, are exposed to dangerous pesticides and other chemicals, and work with large-animal livestock," Johnson explained. "During the spring planting season or the fall harvest time, teachers see firsthand the toll that farmwork takes on these children."

AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson

Johnson was a speaker at "School Is the Best Place to Work: Education Unions against Child Labor," a conference in Berlin Oct. 5-7 hosted by Education International, a global confederation of education unions. "Our choice is not simply to advocate for children," Johnson told the participants, "but also to activate solutions to the challenges they face." The conference allowed EI members to explore how they can join forces to ensure children work in school rather than in factories or agricultural fields.

Participants engaged in two days of discussion around potential solutions, sharing best practices and learning from each other's experiences. Participating organizations not only have advocated to their governments for stronger laws protecting children from hazardous work, but also have conducted programs in which teachers work with their unions and their communities to uncover and remedy instances of exploitive child labor.

Many were shocked to hear that in the United States, as many as 500,000 children work in agriculture because it is exempted from the laws that govern other youth employment. The AFT has been a leader in addressing this gap in the law through its role in the Child Labor Coalition, which Johnson co-chairs.

An important lesson during the conference was that teachers have the power to help address the situation. They can monitor school attendance of individual students and talk directly with parents, peers and school administrators to prevent children from entering into hazardous work situations before they become routine. Training union leaders, members and students to support students at risk of dropping out of school in order to work is the best way to ensure all children are protected from the hazards of working too early in life.

Unions also can help prevent child labor by continuing to promote a broad agenda of decent work. Living wages help parents support their children and reduce the need for children to work. At the same time, fighting to ensure safe working environments reduces the number of work-related injuries and deaths for both children and adults.

"For members of the AFT, as well as our brothers in sisters in other U.S. unions and our allies in other organizations, this is a fight from which we will not shrink," reiterated Johnson. [Abby Mills, Barbara McKenna/photo by Manfred Brinkmann]

October 11, 2012