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Connecting Threads, Part 1

March 29, 2012

Silk Thread, India, Photo by McKay Savage of London, UK, Source (CC BY 2. 0 Generic)

“ Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labor of foraging food; the wasteland provides food for their children. They gather fodder in the fields and glean in the vineyards …” (Job 24: 5-6).

King Cotton

No one can say for certain when cotton was first utilized in textiles.

Fragments of cotton bolls and cotton cloth have been found in Mexico dating to about 5800 BC. Cotton clothed ancient Egypt, India, and China. When Columbus arrived in the Americas, cotton was already growing in the Bahamas.

By the mid-19th Century cotton formed the basis of the South’s economy. Fortunes were made in the lucrative cotton trade, as an outgrowth of slave labor.

Americans continue to wear and use cotton daily.

We are clothed in cotton, soothed and pampered by cotton, and take cotton for granted. Terrycloth robes, jeans and T-shirts, corduroy slacks and chambray work shirts, socks, underwear, cosmetics, swabs, and coffee filters are among the myriad products containing or derived from cotton. Luxury bath towels are graded by cotton thread count.

By the Labor of Their Hands

Until 1943, cotton was laboriously picked by hand. This meant long, backbreaking hours in the sun – first by African American slaves, then share croppers (black and white), then migrants and their children. A grown man was expected to pick about 90 lbs. per day.

Much has changed with the advent of heavy machinery, but migrant workers continue to play an important role in agriculture.

Children continue to work by their parents’ sides. For one thing, cotton has been genetically modified to incorporate the genetic coding for Bt toxin, a natural insecticide produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This has reduced the reliance on pesticides. As it turns out though, children are just the right height to pollinate Bt cotton seeds artificially.

The World Over

The countries where children are involved in cotton production include Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, China, Egypt, India and Pakistan, Turkey, and Zambia.

Parents in India have been documented sending children as young as 8 years old to work in the Bt cotton fields. Most of these children work 10 -12 hours per day.  NGOs estimate there to be at least 60,000 such children.

The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan have reported on what appears to be a large scale state sanctioned program which removes children from school to harvest cotton.

Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, indicates there has been no substantial improvement in the fight against child labor with cotton in Turkey.

And More Still

But the employment of children in agriculture is not limited to cotton.

West African “chocolate slavery” is closely tied to child labor. The Department of Labor and Employment confirms that child labor is prevalent in the Philippine sugarcane fields.

The numerous other products planted, harvested, mined, or made by children[i] around the world include tobacco, sugarcane, and vanilla from Uganda; clothing from Thailand; rubber, rice, and tobacco from the Philippines; produce from Argentina; coffee from Panama, Columbia, and Kenya; rubber, rice, and bamboo from Burma; flowers from Ecuador; sugarcane, tobacco, bricks, and cattle from Brazil; embroidered textiles from India and Nepal; gold and nuts from Bolivia; toys, electronics, and fireworks from China; and diamonds from Angola, the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone.

From every side, it seems, we are surrounded by invisible strands, enmeshed whether we want to be or not.

[i] Additional information on child labor across the globe can be found in the US Department of Labor’s 2011 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor and Forced Labor at


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