Saturday, January 22, 2022
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The Hidden Toll of Holidays

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There’s joy in the air. Colorful lights litter the streets. Family members, divided by generations and thousands of miles, gather together around toasty fireplaces. Elegantly decorated firs tower above a plethora of gifts. Nearby, some refreshing milk and soft chocolate chip cookies await the old man. The next morning, amidst a powerful snowstorm, children and adults alike eagerly open their beloved presents. They overflow with excitement at the sight of the latest gadgets: phones, smartwatches, laptops, wireless earbuds.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a nine-year-old girl spends fifteen hours a day helping crush, sort and carry carcinogenic minerals. Her sister, only a few years older, is exploited and forced into the sex trade, contracting HIV. Their teenage brother spends 24 hours straight underground in the mines. No gloves. No face masks. No ventilation. No lights. None of them attend school.

Those are just some of the horrendous conditions that are highly prevalent in mines around Africa and have been documented by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other researchers. Those mines — gold, diamond, cobalt and mica — supply materials that are vital to many of our modern-day necessities.

Mica, mined partially using child labor in Madagascar, is used in airplanes flown by American airlines and public transit systems in major U.S. cities. Cobalt, necessary for the production of all lithium-ion batteries, is mined with gruesome child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo; it powers our jet engines, electric vehicles, computers and all virtually all technological devices. “Half of the world’s cobalt is mined there in high-risk areas,” per Amnesty International.

Children die while mining cobalt and mica and other minerals. Multinational mining corporations then sell these to manufacturers; they build products for Apple, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Samsung, Volkswagen and countless other firms. We consumers happily buy these products, but we miss the hidden suffering built into our everyday items. As we spend more and more on new technology, especially during the holiday season, we simply add incentives that perpetuate this endless cycle. We enable child labor. We enable child slavery.

Since a wave of reports on this issue, stakeholders ranging from Chinese state-owned exporting firms to European industry groups have taken proactive steps to improve supply chain auditing. African governments have adopted action plans and renewed commitments. Yet these scattered efforts at the margins of industrial systems are futile, with one NGO describing current efforts as a “drop in the ocean,” per CBS News. More comprehensive efforts, with increased public accountability, are necessary.

Institutional problems, ranging from politics and corruption to bureaucracy and lobbying, further inhibit progress against child slavery. Many governments in these poor regions lack the resources to take effective action; capitalist, profit-driven corporations have little incentive to break this horrendous cycle.

Multinational corporations do, however, care about and spend millions on preserving one other thing: a good public image. Enough bad rep might just be enough to incentivize genuine change to trickle down from American front offices. So this holiday season, let’s make an effort to spread awareness about child labor. And maybe, just maybe, Santa will let us cherish the gift of knowing every child in our world can enjoy the holidays with their loved ones, not entrapped in slavery.

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