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Child Labor in the Global Economy
- Subject: Child Labor in the Global Economy
- From: clr@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 14 Oct 1997 11:52:00
/* Written 11:39 AM Oct 14, 1997 by clr in igc:labr.announcem */
/* ---------- "Child Labor in the Global Economy" ---------- */
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[The following article is posted here courtesy of Foreign Policy In
Focus, a project of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, Erik Leaver,
Child Labor in the Global Economy
By Terry Collingsworth, General Counsel, International Labor Rights Fund
from Foreign Policy In Focus
Vol 2, No. 46
Editors: Tom Barry (IRC) and Martha Honey (IPS)
* Child labor is a serious problem with over 250 million children
around the world.
* Poverty is an immediate reason why families send their child to
putting children to work in lieu of education condemns them to a life of
* Legislation introduced by Senator Harkin to ban products made
labor from import to the U.S., while never enacted, provided the stimulus
for model programs like RUGMARK.
Advocacy by human rights groups, repeated media exposure, and reaction to
legislative proposals advanced to ban products made by child labor have led
to widespread acknowledgment that child labor is a serious problem in the
world. It is a problem that has its roots in poverty and the lack of
educational facilities for children of the poor. Around the world, but
particularly in the South, these circumstances force children into the work
force-pushing children into the streets to beg, into the fields to
farm hands, and into factories. The International Labor Organization (ILO),
the tripartite body representing governments, labor and employers, estimates
that more than 250 million children are at work in the global economy. Many
products, ranging from hand-knotted carpets sold in the most exclusive
stores to soccer balls and T-shirts sold in malls, are made with child labor.
Concrete action, however, lagged behind debate over child labor. Only in
1992 when Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence
Act, which sought to ban products made with child labor from
the U.S., did the action begin.
Much of the initial response from export-oriented industries amounted to
aggressive denial followed by accusations that the Harkin legislation was
"protectionist" and aimed at destroying foreign competition. Such positions
may have played well in the local press, but the business community soon
realized that serious steps were necessary to avoid the law's potential
Animated by the ideas and leadership of Kailash Satyarthi, Chair of the
South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) based in India, the RUGMARK
Foundation was one of the first and most successful efforts to create a
program to deal effectively with child labor in the notorious South Asian
hand-knotted carpet industry. The RUGMARK model confronting the problem of
child labor includes two key components: Independent monitoring and
education/rehabilitation programs for the former child workers. The ultimate
goal is to break the cycle of poverty by moving children out of factories
and into schools. Efforts to implement RUGMARK were languishing, however,
until a group of Indian carpet manufacturers and exporters, concerned about
losing access to the U.S. market, teamed up with SACCS, UNICEF, and other
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to launch the program. With offices
around the world, RUGMARK provides on-site monitoring and certifies that
manufacturers are making carpets without child labor. Certified carpets
receive a RUGMARK label, assuring consumers that the carpets meet the
The most significant aspect of the program places any children
the inspection process into RUGMARK-supported schools. RUGMARK, whose
schooling programs also reach out to street children and child workers in
nonexport industries, finances the schools from a service fee charged to
importers who are licensees of the RUGMARK label.
Garment manufacturers in Bangladesh, who depend on the U.S. for 60% of their
export market, also reacted. After the U.S.-based Child Labor Coalition
called for a boycott of garments from Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Garment
Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reached an agreement with
UNICEF and the ILO. The BGMEA agreed to contribute to a new schooling
program (sponsored by the ILO and UNICEF) that would educate all the
children transferred from the garment factories. Roughly 10,000 children
have been placed in education programs and provided with a small
offset their loss of income. These programs manifest hope that once the
child labor problem is identified as a priority, solutions are possible.
Advocates for child workers are now hopeful that further progress will be
facilitated by a law that was passed in early October 1997 that finally
provides a tool for regulating child labor in the global economy. Congress
passed an amendment to the Tariff Act of 1930 that will now prohibit the
U.S. Customs Service from allowing the importation of any product that is
made by "forced or indentured child labor." The law will no doubt
re-energize efforts to develop programs to shift working children into
schools and develop mechanisms for certifying that products are made without
Problems With Current U.S. Policy
* The U.S. lacks any clear policy direction on a comprehensive
combat the use of child labor in the global economy. President Clinton's
call for "voluntary" codes of conduct to get companies to stop exploitative
practices is either naive or cynical.
* The Clinton administration espouses trade agreements that
and labeling programs as unduly restricting international trade.
* A fundamental aspect of any forward-looking policy is that
need quality education programs that provide them with skills for the future.
The U.S. government has yet to formulate an effective, coherent, and
consistent policy with regard to child labor in the global economy. The
administration has complied with congressional mandates to conduct
comprehensive studies of the use of child labor in the global economy, and
these have produced some extremely thorough and useful reports by the
Department of Labor. Yet none of the reports have led to firm policy
objectives. The administration has publicly encouraged companies to
"voluntary" codes of conduct. But asking companies that have benefited from
the use of exploited child labor to suddenly become guardians of higher
standards is either naive or cynical.
The new legislation prohibiting the importation of products made by forced
or indentured child labor must be implemented by the U.S. Customs Service,
under the Department of the Treasury. What remains to be seen is
administration will enforce the law and devote the necessary resources to
developing a more comprehensive and effective overall policy on child labor
in the global economy.
The lack of a clear U.S. policy is more problematic than mere indecisiveness
or deliberation. Trade agreements negotiated and signed by the Clinton
administration effectively preclude the U.S. from dealing effectively with
extreme worker rights violations, including the pervasive use of child
labor. For example, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now
enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), would presumably prohibit
the U.S. from preventing the importation of products made by child labor.
The WTO does not allow for social sanctions, which could be classified as
impermissible "technical barriers to trade." Likewise, even labeling schemes
like RUGMARK might run afoul of GATT provisions and could be considered
technical barriers to trade. The separate WTO Agreement on Government
Procurement (AGP) would limit options for any comprehensive selective
purchasing requirement that prohibits the U.S. government from purchasing
goods made with child labor.
Membership in the WTO technically precludes the U.S. government from
combating child labor by developing options that might be inconsistent with
specific obligations in existing trade agreements. In the short run, the
administration has been circumspect in commenting on whether selective
purchasing or voluntary labeling programs like RUGMARK would violate WTO
constraints. Clearly, the administration is loathe to make a public issue
out of the broad reach of the WTO, particularly when the president is
involved in the sensitive process of seeking "fast track" authority to
negotiate new trade agreements.
Proponents of RUGMARK and selective purchasing on the local level would
welcome a WTO challenge to their efforts. Now that legislation is in place
banning the importation of products made with child labor, such a challenge
will hopefully provoke an appropriate discussion of the reach of the
preventing sovereign nations from regulating social issues as they
trade. Although there may indeed be room to debate the extent to which trade
rules should be the exclusive means to deal with social issues in the global
economy, few would deny that all reasonable efforts should be made to
eradicate the use of exploitative child labor.
The child labor issue should drive the larger struggle to regulate
fundamental rights in the global economy. As nations lose their sovereign
rights to prohibit child labor (through stealth provisions in complex trade
agreements), there must be a plan to ensure that the global economy
force countries with reasonable child labor prohibitions to scrap those
protections and offer up their children as a source of extra cheap
order to compete in the global marketplace. Should Washington find
the position of seeking to dismantle child labor prohibitions in order to
comply with WTO rules, the U.S. will forever forfeit any credibility to its
claim that free trade is in the interests of people at the lower end of the
global economic spectrum.
Another basic problem with U.S. policy is the lack of clear priorities in
its development thrust. As the RUGMARK program illustrates, a key
any child labor policy is to ensure that child workers are taken out of
factories and placed in education programs that will provide them with
skills for the future.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), the primary U.S.
government agency charged with development issues, is still struggling to
find its place in the post-cold war world. Much of its past was spent
funding programs in developing countries to preempt the spread of communist
movements. Now, after a major reorganization, it is funding a range of
programs-from helping women achieve a voice in governance to promoting
democracy in general-but precious little is devoted to basic education and
other support for children who are at risk of being put to work.
The basic education of children does not seem to fit into any of the
programs that AID has devised. Unfortunately, desperate, poor, illiterate
children do not have a strong lobby in Washington. If the U.S. wishes to
have a credible voice in efforts to stop child labor, it is essential that
it support its rhetoric with significant resources. Such a commitment would
demonstrate that the U.S. is motivated by a genuine concern for working
children and their future development prospects rather than by an economic
desire to eliminate the cheap-labor competitive advantage they provide.
Toward a New Foreign Policy
* To assume a global leadership role on child labor issues, the
ratify ILO Convention 138 and initiate a process to create an enforcement
mechanism for that universal standard.
* Any new trade agreements with the U.S. should include a
prohibit both the use of child labor in manufacturing and the
products made with child labor.
* Through its AID programs and its membership in UNICEF and the
the U.S. must make education and rehabilitation programs for child
The policy void on social issues in the global economy is at least partly
due to a failure to prioritize. There are many new problems
the rapid spread of global capital, ranging from inhumane conditions for
workers in developing countries desperate for employment to the destruction
of natural resources and environmental degradation. All these problems arise
from the same basic condition: Global trading rules have created a safe
atmosphere for the expansion of capital and the protection of property, but
the resulting social problems have been dumped on national governments,
which are themselves restricted by trade agreements like GATT.
The only provision for social issues is the discredited assumption that more
trade will lead to employment and prosperity for all. The gaunt faces of
Pakistani children making soccer balls for Nike and Adidas, the
Burmese villagers working at gunpoint to build a gas pipeline for Unocal,
and the brave political prisoners in China making soft fuzzy animals for
sale in leading U.S. department stores should constitute conclusive evidence
that the promised development nirvana will not evolve on its own. Fully
developed and highly profitable multinational firms are benefiting from
extreme cases of exploitation and will continue to do so until some
global regulation is in place to make them stop.
It is a significant step to begin a process of meaningful global regulation
of social issues, and it will take a combination of leadership and political
will. Eradication of child labor would be an appealing place to start the
global regulation of social issues. Even hardened free trade boosters balk
at the use of child labor in the global economy. Successful programs like
RUGMARK and the agreement with the Bangladesh garment industry provide
strong evidence that progress can be made in partnership with business.
Putting exploited child workers in schools and giving them a future is a
laudable development objective that will, in the long run, alleviate the
need for direct development support as the educated children form a new
cadre of skilled workers ready for the competitive global economy.
The Clinton administration could assume a leadership role in eradicating
child labor by pursuing three distinct goals. First, the U.S. must ratify
ILO Convention 138 and then initiate a process to enforce this standard
multilateral basis. Whether the solution is to give the ILO enforcement
powers, to use the WTO process to enforce the ILO Convention, or to develop
an alternative solution is a decision that should be made following a
consensus-building process. The key step is to avoid becoming paralyzed by
the overwhelming array of problems and take a visible role in making the
specific issue of child labor a high priority. This would necessarily
require the U.S. to upgrade its own child labor laws and plug the gaping
holes that, for example, exempt agricultural workers from coverage.
As a second step, the U.S. should rigorously enforce the new legislation
banning products made by forced or indentured child labor and begin the
process of linking trade to a policy of eradicating child labor. Washington
should insist that new trade agreements include enforceable provisions that
prohibit the production and export of goods made with child labor.
Washington should also take other unilateral steps to reinforce its policy
commitment, including adopting a child-labor-free procurement policy.
Finally, to assure that working children do not simply become victims of
high-minded policy, the U.S. should adopt a clear development priority to
fund programs that target working children for rehabilitation and education.
AID, simply by declaring child labor a priority, could achieve a significant
impact. Through coordination of AID, World Bank, and UNICEF programs, real
progress could be made toward providing children with an option better than
starving or working: going to school and being fed a nutritious meal. Now
that a ban on some forms of child labor is in place, it is imperative for
the U.S. to immediately make it a priority to provide education assistance
to ensure that the beneficiaries of this law, the exploited children, truly
do benefit from the law.
Sources for More Information
Child Labor Coalition
c/o National Consumers League
1701 K St N.W. #1200
Washington, D.C. 20006
International Labor Office
1828 L Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Voice: (202) 653-7652
Fax: (202) 653-7687
International Labor Rights Fund
733 15th Street NW #920
Washington, DC 20005
RUGMARK Foundation U.S.A.
733 15th Street NW # 920
Washington, DC 20005
Senator Tom Harkin
Rosemary Gutierrez, Child Labor Issues
731 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Voice: (202) 224-3254
Fax: (202) 224-9369
3 UN Plaza
New York, NY 10017
U.S. Department of Labor
Bureau of International Labor Affairs
200 Constitution Ave. NW, Room S-1308
Washington, DC 20210
Voice: (202) 208-4843
Fax: (202) 219-4923
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Affairs, By the Sweat &
Toil of Children (2 vols 1994 and 1995)
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Affairs, The Apparel
Industry and Codes of Conduct: A Solution to the Child Labor Problem? (1996).
The International Labor Rights Fund, A Comparative Study of the Provisions
of ILO Convention 138 and Federal and State Laws Governing Child Labor in
the United States, 1997.
"Scourge of Child Labor," Multinational Monitor, Jan-Feb 1997 (special
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