Nineteen-year-old Nazma Akther of Bangladesh traveled halfway around the world last September to tell U.S. senators about the cruelty of child labor in the garment industry of her country.
Akther testified before a hearing called "child Labor and the New Global Marketplace. Reaping Profits at the Expense of Children@, She told of starting to work at age 11 as a helper in the Shams Garment Factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Seventy hours a week, Akther supplied sewing-machine operators with materials and transported garments to the finishing room. She was paid $8 a month. Her employers beat her for being tardy or for making mistakes.
The Shams factory, according to a 1191 statement from the Food and Commercial Workers union women's network, was among several factories in Dhaka supplying clothes to the WalMart department-store chain in the United States.
Child labor is cheap labor. And developing countries like Bangladesh commonly disregard their own child-labor laws because cheap labor entices multi-national corporate investors to their shores.
In some cases, according to a U.S. Labor Department report, "By the Sweat and Toil of Children@ The Use of Child Labor in American Imports," released in September, government policies to promote exports produced through intensive use of low-skilled labor, such as garments and carpets, "may have resulted in an increase in the demand and use of child labor."
With economic globalization, governments in developing countries view growth in labor-intensive export industries as the key to securing a position in an increasingly competitive global market.
India is a country where such growth of export industries has already meant a rise in child labor. According to Kailash Satyarthi, chair of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, 100,000 children worked in India's carpet industry a decade ago, bringing in $100 million in export revenues annually. Today, Satyarthi said, 300,000 children serve a carpet-export market of $300 million.
There are 200 million child laborers worldwide, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization. The U.S. Labor Department reports that approximately 5 percent - or an estimated 10 million children - presently work in export industries, mainly garment, carpet, furniture and shoe manufacturing, small-scale mining, gem polishing, food processing and leather tanning.
Ninety-five percent of all child laborers live in developing nations, according to the ILO. In some regions, the ILO claims, 25 percent of child laborers are between the ages of 10 and 14. Fifty percent of the world's working children live in Asia, and one out of every three children in Africa are child laborers - the highest per capita rate in the world. And in some countries in Latin America, up to 26 percent of children are forced to work.
Poverty, cultural traditions of child labor, and lack of educational opportunities are three of the most commonly cited reasons for child labor. Children's advocates say that, while poverty is an important element, other factors exacerbate the problem. They cite unscrupulous employers who take advantage of children, public policy and indifference, government corruption and inefficiency, and societal prejudice that consigns less-privileged groups to accepting exploitation.
Children's work contributes substantially to the profits of transnational trade. But the largest trade agreement in history, the Uruguay Round, or the latest negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, voted through the, U.S. Congress in November, does not mention child workers.
The omission is especially significant because the U.S. Trade Act, signed into slaw in 1974 by President Nixon, requires that workers, rights, including a minimum age for child workers, be a top negotiating priority at GATT. But GATT was signed by the United States and ratified by Congress despite this disregard for U.S. trade law.
A senior trade official in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative said that for 15 year's U.S. negotiators have attempted to include workers' rights in trade talks, but they "have been consistently frustrated." The official said developing nations successfully blocked the issue from the agenda, calling it protectionism.
Trade expert and author Patrick Low, in his book Trading Free: The GATT and U.S. Trade Policy, has a different view, claiming U.S. negotiators did not go to great lengths to get the topic on the GATT agenda. "At least part of the reason that [worker rights] were dropped was that the United States did not push them hard enough to overcome opposition." Low said "the question of workers' rights was not raised ... until ... rather late in the process."
Bill Goold, a recognized authority on child labor and the legislative director for George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., said he believes child labor rights were largely absent from ongoing GATT negotiations because the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations were more interested in currying favor with big business than spending any political capital for workers, rights. Goold said these rights "have never been high enough on the priority list of the U.S. trade negotiators to convince other GATT members that we meant business."
Because of the consistent failure of U.S. trade officials to include workers' rights in international trade law, Goold and some members of Congress have spent the past decade adding such rights to U.S. trade, finance and foreign aid laws, namely the Generalized System of Preferences, the Overseas Investment Corporation, Section 301 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act and the Child Labor Deterrence Act.
These laws, according to the AFL-CIO, have taught some repressive, anti-worker governments ... that there is a tangible price to be paid, in terms of their trade relations with the United States, if they consistently infringe on the legitimate rights of their own working people."
For example, because of this pressure, Taiwan, South Korea and the Central African Republic have all enacted stronger labor codes rather than risk losing access to the U.S. market. And Thailand has agreed in principle to raise its minimum child-labor age from 12 to 13.
Additionally, the Child Labor Deterrence Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, which would prohibit entry into the United States of any products mined or manufactured by children under age 15, is still pending in Congress.
Rug manufacturers in India, Pakistan and Nepal have already responded to it. They have adopted a "Rugmark" label to certify rugs exported from these countries that are woven without the use child labor. Satyarthi's South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude is one group monitoring use of the label.
Goold said he fears these laws protecting child workers, rights may not survive, especially with the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill. He said there are indications that U.S.-based multinational corporations would like to see provisions on workers, rights excised from U.S. trade law.
Powerful business lobbies have openly expressed objections to the inclusion of workers' rights provisions in U.S. trade legislation. Robert L. McNeill is the executive vice chairman of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a lobbying group of 60 U.S. corporations whose exports account for more than 50 percent of total U.S. exports. In a recent interview, McNeill said the committee is adamantly opposed to workers' rights provisions in U.S. trade law.
MacNeill said the U.S. business community as a whole is opposed to "using trade negotiations as an instrument for the accomplishment of changes abroad in the labor area."
What the business community would object to, he said, "is for the United States to make unilateral decisions and act on them unilaterally in a global world. They don't work."
However, the creation of the Rug-mark certification suggests that even pending legislation works.
The other possible forum for securing rights for child workers is the World Trade Organization. But, Goold said, given the incapacity of U.S. trade representative in the past to make workers' rights a priority at GAIT - despite U.S. law requiring they be a negotiating priority - it is unlikely that U.S. representatives at the World Trade Organization will make any headway.
The only step in this direction that GATT has taken is the securing of a working group to explore the possibility of linking international labor standards and trade at the new World Trade Organization.
"We certainly don't object to that," McNeill said. "We think that is probably desirable."
Goold said McNeill and other members of the U.S. business community can say they support the linkage of workers' rights to global trade treaties because past track records strongly suggest this will never happen.
Goold said that while many U.S. corporations will not openly oppose linkage of workers, rights to trade law, they find subtle ways to obstruct it. The U.S. multinational corporations "are very skillful and effective at orchestrating opposition to linkage without having to be out front doing so," Goold said.
They don't want their fingerprints on killing worker-rights linkage, so they oppose new fast-track authority in U.S. law if it includes any mention of worker rights," he said.
As an example of the "tremendous, tremendous" power of U.S.-based multi-national corporations and banks, Goold cited a letter written to President Clinton last July, signed by all 44 Republican senators. In short, the senators said they would not support Clinton's request for fast-track authority to negotiate future trade agreements as long as he insisted on linking future trade talks with international labor standards.
Under fast-track authority, Congress agrees to vote on a trade treaty negotiated by the administration within a fixed time and without making revisions.
The Republicans, letter came on the heels of a May 1994 letter from the House Democrats and one House Republican insisting that requests for fast-track authority include a requirement that future trade agreements draft binding provisions to assure the adoption of workers' rights.
Goold says the debate, which is expected to heat up soon, "is one of the greatest debates and public policy choices of the foreseeable future."
And it will reverberate halfway around the world.
"We're getting closer to helping people understand the situation of that child in Bangladesh," he said.…