Labor of Love

In a new book of photographs, David Parker, MD, examines the ills of child labor. He talks with us about what he’s seen—and some potential cures.

IN THE GARBAGE DUMPS of Mexico City, communities of scavengers live amid the waste like flies on rot: sorting, selling, eating, and sheltering themselves with the rancid debris. Kids have reportedly been buried alive while digging through the trash. The local government generally denies that the situation exists. But David Parker, MD, back in his Minneapolis office, has photographic proof.

In Indonesia, young boys are recruited from villages to live on fishing platforms set on stilts in the ocean. The children work for little or no pay for months or a year. Food and fresh water are in short supply; sexual abuse is all too common. Storms sometimes sweep the boys into the sea. Parker has documented their lives, too, as well as those of child carpet makers in Nepal, child circus performers in India—basically the worldwide gamut of child laborers—in his new book, Before Their Time, due for release in April.

For the past 20 years, Parker has practiced occupational health with Park Nicollet Health Services, treating workers who have been injured on the job and helping companies create safer work conditions. His office is on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, but since 1992, the world has been his workplace, at least for a couple of months a year, when he takes time “off” to aim his Leica cameras at children whose dreams are washing away in vats of leather tanning chemicals and carpet dyes.

Parker does not oppose hard work. He has long been fascinated by factories and has visited hundreds of them, including many in Minnesota, which he photographed for By These Hands—a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award in 2003. He loves knowing how things are made and who’s making them. But he believes that children should not be among the makers. As a doctor, he has learned that they are especially sensitive to the chemicals, dust, and other byproducts of manufacturing, which can damage young brains and bodies. Given their mental and physical immaturity, children can easily place themselves in danger, too, to say nothing of the risk of exploitation.

Some say the argument against child labor is unaccommodating to cultural differences—the world’s varying views on work and childhood—or unsympathetic to economic necessity. Parker himself allows that not every scenario of kids at work is inherently harmful. Who can say what the story was behind the photographs he shot in Minnesota and included in his first book on child labor, released in 1998: one of a kid working the Midway at the State Fair and another of kids selling produce at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. Yet even these seemingly innocuous situations require scrutiny, he believes. The dangers are easily overlooked. For instance, how are we protecting the kids who are exposed to pesticides while working on Minnesota’s farms?

Photo by David Parker

Parker believes the line between work and exploitation is often clear. There are international agreements on child labor, after all, that countries have pledged to uphold. And workers everywhere, even children, usually know when they’re being exploited: when they go to bed hungry, for instance, or when they aren’t paid. Employers, too, know when they have something to hide. Parker has been asked to leave factories, and a friend of his was beaten nearly to death while investigating child circus performers in India.

The dangers of child labor were obvious to Parker on one of his first expeditions, to carpet plants in Kathmandu, Nepal. “In these dark, musty factories, kids between [ages] 5 and 11 were in this dirty room, knotting carpet, and all of them were coughing and sick,” he recalls. “Most had problems with their hands, like arthritis. And I said to myself, ‘This is what people are talking about when they talk about child labor.’ ” So-called cultural differences, Parker says, are often just an excuse for countries to avoid doing better by their children. Where countries fail to provide affordable education and some reasonable amount of support for their poorest citizens, Parker has observed, that’s where poverty tends to push kids into work. “Absent the financial constraints,” he says, “much of [child labor] will disappear.”

Parker sees the end of child labor as part of the beginning of something else: healthier, wealthier, more democratic nations. Children earning paychecks, after all, are children generally not earning degrees. And if one believes the evidence regarding education—that educated parents are more likely to raise healthy families; that an educated citizenry is necessary for democratic governance—then the issue of child labor becomes not just a moral problem but a matter of social and economic progress as well.

As a larger issue, the nature of work—how things are made, how people earn a living—is something that Parker believes we don’t spend enough time thinking about. He would like to see more attention paid to this in schools. For if we knew how our staplers, our scissors, and those toothy metal strips on tape dispensers were manufactured, perhaps we could better empathize with the hands, especially the small ones, that make these products.

Tim Gihring is senior writer of Minnesota Monthly.

Before Their Time is slated for release by W. W. Norton & Company in April and will be available at all major bookstores.