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The Delhi 14

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Just 72 hours ago in the Indian capital of Delhi 14 children were freed from slave labour. They were being held in dark, insanitary conditions and forced to work for up to 15 hours a day making Christmas decorations. Two were just eight years old.

The suffering of these young children, cruelly trafficked into slave labour, is the real Christmas story of 2012. Their plight must become a wake-up call for all concerned about the treatment of vulnerable children around the world. It demands we move immediately to ban all child labor.

The children rescued in Delhi had been beaten and intimidated. Imprisoned in dingy, locked rooms where they were forced to make Christmas goods with no access to light or fresh air. Malnourished and underfed, many had injuries as a result of using glass to make trinkets and because of violent assaults by their gangmasters. All had been sold into slavery and trafficked by middlemen.

The Christmas decorations and seasonal gifts they were making were for export from India to the West. There are near identical items on sale in shops in America and Europe right now.

The courageous morning break-in that freed the children from this slave labor was organized and carried out by Kailash Satyarthi and his co-leaders of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and Global March Against Child Labour (GMACL). They faced violent resistance by the gangmasters and thugs.

Because the gangmasters had received a tip off that a raid would take place, most of the children had been whisked away from the workshop and 12 were incarcerated in a pitch-black cell no bigger than 6ft by 6ft.

Only with police help were the locks to the cell broken and all children rescued. They are now receiving rehabilitative care and arrangements are being made for them to go to school.

The 'Delhi 14' are just a few of the thousands of children forcibly conscripted into a multi-billion Christmas sweatshop trade in hundreds of hidden factories and workplaces. The child laborers are just a tiny proportion of the 15 million children under the age of 12 who do not go to school because they are forced to work.

Christmas is supposed to be a festive celebration but for the 'Delhi 14' it had become a nightmare of exploitation, cruelty, neglect and violence. Their suffering is amongst the most tragic Christmas tales of our times.

The cry for help of a child should be an international language we all are able to understand and respond to immediately.

We must now demand that before the Indian Parliament finishes its session on December the 20th legislation is passed banning all child labor for under fourteens and outlawing hazardous work for under eighteens.

Our petition on EducationEnvoy.org asks concerned citizens around the world to support our call to end child labor.

The figures of child exploitation makes appalling Christmas reading: of the 61 million children who do not go to primary school one in four work full-time. In Africa child labour is rising.

My report on child labour -- published with the help of the Brookings Institution's Kevin Watkins and a number of organisations including the excellent Understanding Child Work project demonstrates -- many children who go to school part-time also work part-time. In total, 215 million children are in some kind of employment.

More alarming is the number of children aged less than 12 who are involved in hazardous forms of labor, 90 million in total. These children are to be found risking their young lives down narrow tunnels mining for gold in Tanzania. They are working on cocoa farms in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire or in garment factories in South Asia. More than half of these vulnerable children are trafficked, forced into prostitution or armed conflict. The anti-slavery organisation Walk Free reports that in some parts of the world children as young as five and six are sold as slaves.

People assume all too readily that child labor will simply die out of its own accord. So we fail to press companies and consumers hard enough to demand the policing and enforcement of anti-child labor laws. For too long governments around the world have stood by and not taken sufficient action to eradicate child labor. That's why I am now calling on governments, donors and UN agencies to come together and put in place the policies needed to get children out of exploitative employment and into education. Just as universal education was the catalyst a century ago for consigning child labor to the history books of the rich world, so it can free a generation of children today.

The new exposé of the children denied schooling because of child labor comes just six weeks after the Taliban's shooting of Malala Yousafzai simply because she wanted to go to school. The world is discovering that in 2012 millions of children are forcibly prevented from attending lessons because of child labor, child marriage, child militias, child trafficking and the brutal discrimination against girls. In total 32 million girls and 29 million boys are denied their right to education.

We now know from these appalling new revelations the sheer scale, severity and depth of inhumane treatment visited upon young children, it is time for the U.N. to draw up a plan to end child slavery.

The education of all children cannot of course start to happen until we end the exploitation of children. 2012 must be the year when the casual complacency about the plight of 61 million out of school children ends, 2013 must be the breakthrough year that ushers in urgent and practical action. Let this year's grim Christmas tale lead to a New Year resolution the world will honour - the end of child slavery once and for all.