Before Their Time
SPH faculty member David Parker brings a human face to the tragic world of child labor
David Parker remembers the moment he first encountered child labor. It was the early 1990s and the occupational health physician was in Nepal investigating what was at the time a greatly unknown issue. “I walked into a factory, and there were about forty kids sitting on a cold, damp floor hand knotting carpets in a cramped room,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘My God, this is what people think of when they talk about child labor.’”
That trip led to many similar ones over the next two decades. Armed with a Leica camera, Parker documented young cotton pickers in Turkey, metal workers in Morocco, prostitutes in Thailand, leather tanners in Bangladesh, garbage pickers in Nicaragua, and many others. He often had to pose as a businessman (complete with falsified business cards) to gain access to work sites.
Along the way, he published books of his photographs and edited a collection of essays. He won a Minnesota Book Award, a McKnight photography grant, and a Christopher Award “for literature affirming the highest values of the human spirit.” His photographs were displayed in the U.S. Senate rotunda, at the Department of Labor, and in traveling exhibitions throughout Canada and Nicaragua.
More than 320 million kids exploited
In that time, the visibility of child labor rose and governments began acting to stop it. Yet today more than 320 million kids under the age of 16 work at jobs where they’re often underpaid, underfed, and exposed to abuse and dangerous working conditions. When faced with questions about trying to remedy a centuries-old problem—one that is inextricable from cycles of poverty and lack of education—Parker says people should simply “do what they can.”
To illustrate the point, Parker goes full circle, back to Nepal, where he first saw children toiling in the carpet factory. Since that visit, he has forged connections that helped the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights start a school in Kathmandu valley, serving the very children who used to have no alternative to working. “We started with eight kids,” says Parker. “Now we have about 280.”