Lessons From History for Universal Children’s Day

<em>Carusi </em>at work in a sulfur mine in Sicily
Carusi at work in a sulfur mine in Sicily

This November 20th marks Universal Children’s Day, an international celebration of the well-being and human rights of children worldwide. A recent UNICEF report published in September revealed that an estimated fifty million children have now migrated to or taken refuge in other countries, with twenty-eight million of them forcibly displaced in the wake of violent conflicts. Already, reports from the BBC have exposed that UK clothing factories based in Turkey have been exploiting Syrian refugee children, working them longer than twelve-hour shifts at far below the minimum wage.

The story of child exploitation is not new. For hundreds of years, severe poverty and a lack of seriously enforced labor laws have led countless desperate families around the world to put their children to work. In Italy, children as young as 6 and 7 years old, were forced to work in the sulfur mines of Sicily. Known as the carusi, these children experienced horrific working conditions, hauling ore out of cramped, poorly-ventilated tunnels under constant risk of explosions and cave-ins. Those who survived were sometimes left physically deformed by the labor, while others experienced sexual assault by the older miners they worked alongside. It wasn’t until 1886 that the Italian government forbade children under the age of nine from working in mines, quarries, and factories. Yet such labor laws were not strictly enforced, especially in more rural areas, allowing abusive conditions to continue for decades more.

As a Sicilian American, I had no awareness of this tragic history until a deeper investigation of my own heritage exposed me to the haunting reality. Once considered the world’s premier energy source, sulfur mining remained a big industry in Sicily, lasting until the 1980s. Still, I found only a limited amount of information published about the lives of the carusi. I traveled to Sicily in 2013 to conduct a series of oral histories with some of the last surviving miners of the region. One of these men was 103 years old at the time of our interview. Their stories echoed the research I uncovered, including those words by the great American educator and author, Booker T. Washington. He also visited the mines in Sicily to witness the carusi for himself, as part of the research for his sociological book The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe. Washington compared the suffering of the carusi to that of African American slaves: “the cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected…are as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery. These boy slaves were frequently beaten and pinched, in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them.”

Yet during my travels, I was troubled by the number of Sicilians I met who didn’t know anything outside of the fact that the mines once existed. Similarly, most people I knew in America, whether they had Italian ancestry or not, had no idea about this history of child labor abuse. This lack of awareness about the carusi both in Italy and abroad deeply disturbed me. I was compelled to write The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017) in hopes of bringing a greater awareness to this history, and the harsh means by which these child laborers survived.

The carusi of today are the child laborers who work in the cobalt mines of the Congo and the sweatshops of Bangladesh, producing the latest designer fashions and home goods. They are refugee children from Syria overworked in clothing factories or children from Sudan and Eritrea forced into the sex-trade industry by human traffickers.

On Universal Children’s Day, we must recognize that the abuse and labor exploitation of children is an ongoing reality, one that should be faced with greater awareness and sensitivity. We are all interconnected by the clothes we wear, the food and technology that we purchase, and the conveniences that we take for granted. More often we should wonder where so many of these products and modern conveniences derive? What greater measures can we take to stop and prevent child labor abuse from continuing? Perhaps a deeper awareness of our own pasts, those histories rooted in our own bloodlines, might reveal the common suffering that our ancestors once shared with those who now suffer today.

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