Date: Sat, 4 Oct 97 12:41:41 CDT
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Child Labor in the Global Economy
/** labr.global: 312.0 **/
** Topic: Child Labor in the Global Economy **
** Written 1:19 PM Oct 3, 1997 by labornews in cdp:labr.global **
Foreign Policy In Focus:
Child Labor in the Global Economy
By Terry Collingsworth, General Counsel,
International Labor Rights
Fund, editors: Tom Barry (IRC) and Martha Honey (IPS),
Vol. 2, no. 46, October 1997
- Child labor is a serious problem with over 250 million children
working around the world.
- Poverty is an immediate reason why families send their child to
work, but putting children to work in lieu of education condemns them
to a life of poverty.
- Legislation introduced by Senator Harkin to ban products made
with child 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 labor as
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
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 importation to
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 child-labor-free requirements.
The most significant aspect of the program places any children identified
in 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
stipend to offset their loss of income. These programs manifest hope that
once the child labor problem is identified as a priority, solutions are
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 child labor.
Problems With Current U.S. Policy
- The U.S. lacks any clear policy direction on a comprehensive
program to 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
regard boycotts and labeling programs as unduly restricting
- A fundamental aspect of any forward-looking policy is that
child workers 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 abide
by "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 whether
the 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 the importation of products made by child
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 WTO in
preventing sovereign nations from regulating social issues as they relate
to 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 does
not force countries with reasonable child labor prohibitions to scrap those
protections and offer up their children as a source of extra cheap labor in
order to compete in the global marketplace. Should Washington find itself
in 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 aspect of
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
anagrams 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
U.S. must 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
provision to prohibit both the use of child labor in manufacturing and
the trafficking of products made with child labor.
- Through its AID programs and its membership in UNICEF and the
World Bank, the U.S. must make education and rehabilitation programs
for child workers a development priority.
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 attributable to
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
thousands of 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 form of 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 on
a 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 issue).
Foreign Policy In Focus is a joint project of the
Interhemipsheric Resource Center (IRC) and the Institute for
Policy Studies (IPS). In Focus briefs document the problems
of current U.S. foreign policy and offer recommendations for
alternative policy directions that would make the United
States a more responsible global partner.
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