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Connecting Threads, Part 1

April 25, 2021

Hand-woven bag on rigid heddle loom with cotton threads, Author/Source SEN Heritage Looms – Sophia Tsourinaki (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

“ 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 Dept. of Labor’s 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf.

Originally posted 3/29/12

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10 Comments
  1. My parents had ongoing discussions about how much their children should work on the farm. The goal was teaching us how to work as a life skill and value
    They had a good balance of forcing us kids to work and making sure we learned how to work. I was 7 years old when I learned how to drive a small tractor for the planting process. That year I worked after school until midnight until crops were in. Summers in the hay field we had short days and long days. It was hard work but I grew to love working (which was really my parents goal) So when I got my first job driving tractor and mowing fairways at a local golf course, I finally was paid for something at $1/hr. I would get up at 5AM, ride my bicycle 5 miles to work. check all the machinery, sharpen mower blades, water some of the 1500 trees we had planted and start mowing fairways. I was fired at the end of the summer because they found out I was only 11 years old and legally I couldn’t operate machinery. I wouldn’t change a thing for my youth. If all the world only knew how to work.

    That being said….child slave labor is quite another thing.

    • My immigrant mother and father both lost their small family farms in WWII. The fact they taught me the value of hard work early (and modeled it, themselves) was a major factor in my own success.

  2. What really breaks my heart with regard to child labour in the PH is their involvement in small-scale mining and the logging industry. I have no words.

  3. That’s part of the problem now with young people, they are not taught how to work, can’t stand the thought of hard work, and we have a bunch of basically uneducated in life skills snow flakes. I had my first paying job at 16 and worked my way through high school and college. (we were required to buy our books and supplies) Now they think we who do work should give them free tuition, etc. I’m totally against child labor but I sure don’t understand these parents that teach their kids through free hand outs and that life “owes you.” Hard work never hurt anyone!

  4. Allan Halton permalink

    It was a convicting move of the Spirit of God beginning with the Wesleys in England that brought an end to child labour there. Nothing less will do it in our day.

  5. Busy reading George Muller’s story by Roger Steer, ‘Delighted in God.’ He got flak for insisting on a good education for the orphans in Bristol. ‘Because of the duration of the education he provided, Muller was accused of robbing the factories, mills and mines of labour; he was not deterred.’ That was in the 1860’s, plus/minus… to think the problem of child labour is still so much with us 160 years later. How people worship Mammon at the expense of their ‘neighbours.’ Aluta Continua!

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