Craig Kielburger heads an international organization, influences Canadian Government policy,
testifies to US congressional committees, appears regularly on TV and travels
all over the world in the cause of abolishing child labour.
He is also just 14. He talked to the NI about his work and about the inspiration
of a great child campaigner from the other side of the world.

Craig kielburger, child-labour campaigner extraordinaire, has travelled for an hour-and-a-half through the bush in northern Kenya to reach a phone. Normally he’s to be found at his family’s home just a few miles from the NI office in Toronto, Canada. But he’s going to be away in Africa and Asia for some weeks so we’ve had to track him down in the most inaccessible phase of his trip. His voice comes across loud and clear, though the effect of a child’s voice talking with a confidence and a grasp of a complex subject that would shame all but a few adults is possibly even more disorientating when his voice is disembodied. But he might not thank us for emphasizing his youth.

‘The single biggest problem we’ve had is adults who will not take us seriously, who think that because we are young we will oversimplify the issue of child labour and not do our research. Many of our members are as young as nine or ten years old but we do our research as well as taking action.’

Craig was inspired to take up his cause by another famous child campaigner from the other side of the world – Iqbal Masih (pictured right). ‘It was two years ago that I first read an article about Iqbal Masih. The article talked about his life, how at the age of four he was sold into bondage to work as a carpet weaver, how he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, weaving carpets tying tiny knots. At the age of ten he was able to escape and began to speak out for the children of his country. But two years later he was murdered. I was also 12 years old at that point and so basically I looked at my life and I looked at his and saw the differences and the similarities.’

What were the similarities?

‘We were the same age. I could imagine Iqbal, I could imagine his dreams were the same – the article said that when he was older he wanted to become a lawyer and how he hoped to use that to free children. It talked about how he loved school and spoke about some of the things he did when he was freed. But the big thing that shocked me were the differences. I’d always thought, well, slavery, bonded labour, it’s something out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – it’s been abolished, it no longer exists.’

Do you assume he was murdered by people in the industry for speaking out?

‘His death is a mystery. But whoever he was murdered by, it doesn’t matter. It was what he spoke up for that was important – he was an advocate against child labour who started to take action in his own country.’

So, inspired by this, you spoke about it in school and launched an organization...

‘Exactly. I began doing research on the issue and then took what I knew and went to my class. I said: “This is what I want to do – who wants to help?” From there it began to expand. Free the Children started as a group of 20 kids in Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto. Now we have groups in Canada, the US, Australia, Brazil, we have young people involved in Singapore, we get calls from Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, all around the world.

‘Child labour is a very complex problem, that’s the truth. But that can’t be used as an excuse not to take action. Consumer pressure can change things. In Pakistan, for example, consumer pressure resulted in the Government raising the amount they spent on primary education from one per cent of the national budget to nearly three per cent, and building more than a thousand literacy centres. Even companies are beginning to take action in response to the pressure. Young people are beginning to realize their power.’

Do you see yourself as a child worker?

‘No [he laughs], I see myself as a volunteer. We’re a group of young people who volunteer to give up some of their spare time to work on this issue. We’re not against children working – we’re against children being abused and exploited.’

You’re just 14 yet you’ve travelled all over the world, been interviewed regularly on US television and buttonholed prime ministers and senators. Haven’t you found this daunting?

‘Well, I’ve met children who work 12 hours a day in agriculture or sweatshops or fighting a war. But at the other extreme in North America, Europe and Australia are children who are given no responsibility and no chance to get involved. I think the reason why Free the Children has grown so quickly is that we’ve given young people those opportunities. They haven’t seen them as daunting or overwhelming; they’ve seen it as a challenge they can rise to. We have a girl of 12 from Ottawa, Laura Hannant, who just got back from giving the keynote address at an International Child Welfare Conference in Chicago – before that she was in South Africa and Holland. It just shows what people can do when they’re given the chance.’

What do your parents think about all this?

‘I have very understanding parents. At the point where I was planning a seven-week trip to India and Pakistan last year at the age of 13 they were pretty concerned – up to then my parents wouldn’t even let me take the subway by myself, let alone travel to a different continent. But once they found out it was safe and well organized they let me go.’

Where do you go from here? Will normal life ever resume?

‘In a way I still consider this a normal kind of life! I will always stay involved with the issue of child labour to some extent. But it’s young people who run Free the Children and eventually I will move on. Actually when I’m older I hope to work for Médecins Sans Frontières, an organization I respect highly because it works on problems that are the world’s responsibility. That’s the thing about child labour, too – these are the world’s children and the world’s responsibility.’

See the list of action groups for Free the Children’s contact details.

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