Always, on Labor Day, I think of my great-great uncle, Tommy Plum. All I know about him is from looking at his pinched, tired, non-smiling face in old family photos. That and the fact that, around the turn of the 20th century, at age 8 or so, he was just a little boy who worked underground in the coal mines of southern Iowa. Let’s say that again: He was a little boy and he worked in the coal mines.
My family heritage, on both sides, is of mining families. They came here from Wales and England. Some of them farmed, too, but mostly they went down into the dark every day. They often never saw the sun except on Sunday. That is history, as is the effort of my ancestors working to end child labor and getting blacklisted for trying. It is a history of which I am extremely proud.
For about 158 million children ages 5-14 – one in six children around the world —- child labor is not a distant history lesson. They work in mines, with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or with dangerous machinery, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
If you include children up to age 17 – the International Labor Organization estimates that 215 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous, or extremely exploitative. This information comes from the Child Labor Public Education website, which reports that large numbers of children work in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining and domestic service. Some also work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or other traumatic activities such as serving as soldiers. (www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/what_is_child_labor.html)
These children don’t get Labor Day off for a barbecue.
As we rightly celebrate Labor Day to honor workers, let’s not forget those little children, who — like Uncle Tommy — need someone to stand up for them.
Let’s investigate how to do that and, then, take concrete action.
For Labor Day, here is a prayer by an unknown miner:
God, we don’t like to complain; we know the mine is no lark.
But—there’s pools from the rain; there’s the cold and the dark.
God, you don’t know what it is like, you in your well-lit sky, watching the meteors whizz, with a sun always by.
God, if you had but the moon stuck in your cap for a lamp, even you’d soon tire of it, down in the dark and the damp.
Nothing but blackness above and nothing that moves but the cars.
God, if you wish for our love, fling us a handful of stars.