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Mobtown Beat

Children's Crusade

A Baltimore Teen Organizes Friends to Protest Companies that Support Sweatshop Labor

By Laura Lewis | Posted 8/6/2003

Most 13-year-olds spend their summer days at camp, at the pool, running around outside, or avoiding the heat by playing video games. Isaac Dalto, a red-headed eighth-grader from Baltimore, does all of those things. But he's also got another hobby that's pretty rare for a boy his age: He organizes other local teens to fight sweatshop abuse overseas.

When Dalto, the son of civic-minded parents who are interested in social-justice issues, discovered a book in the Towson library titled Heroic Children, which tells the story of a Pakistani teen, Iqbal Massih, who was killed while fighting sweatshop abuses in his country, he felt compelled to act.

"He read that article and came into the room where I was sitting," his father, Michael Dalto, says. "And I can remember he had tears of rage of in his eyes and said, 'I have to do something about this.'"

Now, Dalto, a student at the GreenMount School in Remington, organizes protests at local Wal-Mart stores to raise awareness about the issue. Dalto says he did some research on sweatshops after reading about Massih, and found the company, the biggest retailer in the world, is known for buying cheap goods from its suppliers made in sweatshop factories outside the United States.

In March 2003, Dalto organized other young supporters of his cause, like his lifelong friend and neighbor Tony DeMarco, into an effort he calls Children Against Sweatshop Abuses, or CASA. It is an all-volunteer social-justice group that is not yet affiliated with any national group or organization. The group has 15 to 20 members who correspond by e-mail every few weeks and meet about once every other month. His 10-year-old sister, Nora, helps make posters and signs for the group.

Eventually, Dalto says, "the idea of a protest didn't seem like a huge, impossible task." He organized some of his pre-teen friends to go with him to the Hunt Valley Wal-Mart in June 2002. Though he admits the first protest wasn't as organized as he would have liked, he did manage to open the eyes of some of his closest friends.

"Before I didn't really care, and Isaac told me how Nike and Wal-Mart use so much child labor, and I thought it was crazy," DeMarco says. "When I was little, I thought everyone lived the way I did."

So far, the group has conducted two protests at Wal-Mart stores in the Baltimore area: the 2002 Hunt Valley Mall event and another that took place on June 21 of this year, outside a Wal-Mart in White Marsh. Dalto says more events are in the works.

Local TV news covered the White Marsh protest, where Dalto and about 15 other children marched with fliers and balloons that read end sweatshop abuses. The goal, he says, was to spread the word about the deplorable conditions in Third World factories. "The main goal all along is to educate the public," he says.

Dalto and his fellow young activists say they worry about children, some as young as 9, who are employed in factories in countries like Honduras, Bangladesh, and Nicaragua. Anti-sweatshop groups say these kids have been seen laboring in unsafe conditions to produce goods for sale in the United States. Many work lengthy shifts, for less then 25 cents an hour. Worse, the activists say, the young workers may be beaten for not performing up to par while on the job.

Wal-Mart has been criticized for its support of sweatshop labor, including its production of the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line the retailer offered in the 1990s. In the mid-'90s, investigators from the National Labor Committee, a New York-based human-rights advocacy group, discovered that some of the line's items were being sewn by young girls in a sweatshop in Honduras. In 2001, Domini Social Investments, a Providence, R.I.-based financial firm specializing in socially responsible investments, dropped Wal-Mart from its 400 Social Index due to the company's failure to monitor conditions at overseas contract facilities where worker abuse was common.

Wal-Mart denies the allegations, as a statement on its Web site indicates: "Wal-Mart strives to do business only with factories run legally and ethically. . . . We require suppliers to ensure that every factory conforms to local workplace laws and that there is no illegal child or forced labor. . . . In fact, we conduct more than 300 factory inspections each week as part of our commitment. In short, we have no desire to do business with any factory being run illegally or unethically, and we feel that our program is helping to improve working conditions and create economic opportunity for workers around the world."

Dalto and his fellow activists remain skeptical of Wal-Mart's promises and are demanding a list of factories the retailer claims to inspect. Their goals are first to find out where Wal-Mart products are made, then to lobby the company to improve worker conditions there.

While Dalto's initiative may be effective in getting this information across to the media and his fellow students, not everyone is receptive to his message. The police were called to break up the protest at the White Marsh Wal-Mart, and the manager of the store refused to comment on the protest to the media. Jeremy Gravitt, whose son Garth is part of CASA, says many of the adults shopping at Wal-Mart on June 21 were hostile to the kids participating in the protest. He describes adults "cussing out" the young protesters and says, "If it hadn't rained, it may have escalated into something else."

Dalto says he ended up faxing his list of demands to Wal-Mart corporate headquarters, and, more importantly, the protest got more media attention than the annoyed customers or store workers. "Who knows how many people were watching on TV?" he asks.

Dalto does have other interests besides fighting Wal-Mart, like having played Feste in a production of Twelfth Night earlier this summer, listening to punk music, and showing off his latest anti-Britney Spears T-shirt. But he is more aware of social-justice issues that most kids his age, perhaps because he was exposed to them at such an early age.

Dalto was homeschooled until age 11. His mother is Quaker, a religion that promotes pacifism, and at 15 months, Dalto's parents took him to his first protest to support peace during the first Gulf War. By age 3--the same year he decided to become a vegetarian, he says--he attended a gay rights march. At 6, he protested against the death penalty in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Dalto does not remember any of these events clearly, even when his mother, Ann Walker, reminds him of them.

Dalto's inspiration for his recent anti-sweatshop activities, Pakistani teen Iqbal Massih, was 10 years old when he escaped from child-bonded labor in a carpet factory. He went on to speak out about the lives of other children who are kept in states of virtual slavery in factories across the world, until he was murdered in 1995. His story touched not only Dalto but also a more well-known child-labor activist, Craig Kielburger, who was 12 years old when he first read of Massih's plight. Like Dalto, Kielburger gathered a group of his friends and founded an organization, (Kids Can) Free the Children, that fought to help kids working and living in horrible conditions around the world. Kielburger is now 20, and Free the Children is one of the largest international networks that encourages children to help children. The organization builds schools, donates medical supplies, and lobbies corporations to stop using child labor to manufacture products.

Dalto exhibits a similar dedication to the goals of Free the Children, though he says he has never heard of Kielburger. In October 2002, Dalto's parents agreed to take him to Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., so he could attend the Student Action Against Sweatshops and Child Labor conference, sponsored by the Child Labor Education and Action Project. There, Dalto met three women who had worked in Bangladeshi sweatshops since they were 12 and 13. All of them spoke of long hours, low pay, and regular beatings, which shocked Dalto.

"The worst part is being slapped," he says, trying to understand a workplace experience he will most likely never experience. He tells the story of Mahamuda Akter, a woman who sewed clothes for Wal-Mart as a child in an MNC garment factory in Bangladesh. She told Dalto about being slapped in the face and how another girl was kicked, thrown against the wall until she bled, and then fired.

Dalto says that speaking to people who experienced what he had been reading about made his cause seem all the more important, and his goals a little more tangible. "It makes me feel even more dedicated, makes it seem that much more real," he says.

Though some people, including the hecklers at the protests, have doubted Dalto's genuine interest in activism, he and his parents insist that he was not led on the crusade by them or any other adults.

"Obviously, nobody pushed him into this," his mother says. "I think he was emotionally affected [by Massih's story] because he could relate as a kid with a really good life."

When asked what he would tell other kids who want to do something to improve their world, Dalto's advice is simple and straightforward.

"Don't get discouraged," he says. "It's very easy to, especially if the cause seems impossible. . . . I didn't know what I was doing, but I pulled it together somehow and I was successful."

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