US Labor Department recognizes a lifelong champion for change
WASHINGTON – At 13, Sonia Pierre began her stand for workers’ rights in the Dominican Republic, leading a march to demand humane working conditions for sugar cane harvesters in the batey – the worker settlement in which she grew up.
From the single-room, dirt-floor barrack she shared with 12 siblings and her mother, Pierre’s journey took her to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where her powerful testimony helped lead to a landmark decision protecting children whose lack of legal status in their country of birth left them vulnerable to exploitation. The Yean and Bosico case was aimed at reforming the country’s birth registration system, and set a precedent regarding the legal status of migrant-descendant children.
Today, U.S. Department of Labor recognizes Pierre, who died in 2011, with the 2016 Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor for her lifetime efforts in promoting human rights. At a ceremony in his residence on Dec. 14, the U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, James (Wally) Brewster presented the award to Sonia’s daughter, Solange Pierre.
Congress established the Iqbal Masih award in 2009 to recognize exceptional efforts by an individual, company, organization or national government to end the worst forms of child labor. Pierre is the eighth recipient of this non-monetary award.
Like Pierre, Iqbal Masih was compelled to act at a young age. He was chained to a carpet loom in Pakistan and forced to weave carpets – at age four. Five years later, he escaped and began his fierce campaign against the labor exploitation of children, until an unknown gunman killed him at age 13. Masih’s work has inspired many around the world to join the fight against child and forced labor.
“Each year, this award gives us an opportunity to find hope, inspiration and purpose in the example of Iqbal Masih – only a boy, but a boy who embodied what is possible by staying true what is just and right,” said U.S Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. “Sonia Pierre embodied it; together, they show us that the moral clarity of children can change the world.”
Pierre led the struggle against violence and discrimination against Haitians and Dominican children of Haitian descent. Despite threats and intimidation, Sonia fought for children’s access to educational opportunities and nationality. She established an NGO, “Movement for Dominican Women of Haitian Descent,” to help empower these women and their communities. Her efforts brought attention to the link between a lack of nationality and increased vulnerability to child labor and labor exploitation.
The legacy of Pierre has inspired a generation of youth to continue her work to secure legal identity documentation and educational opportunities.
Since 1995, the department has supported global efforts to combat exploitative child labor internationally. For more information about this work and the Iqbal Masih Award, visit http://www.dol.gov/ilab.