Put an End to the Exploitation of Child Labor

By Harkin, Tom | USA TODAY, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Put an End to the Exploitation of Child Labor


Harkin, Tom, USA TODAY


Our Laws prohibit the importation of ivory, endangered species such as the spotted turtle, and products made from prison labor. Yet, our laws fall silent when it comes to goods made through the exploitation of children. We look out for animals and prisoners, but fail to protect youngsters from exploitive and abusive labor.

This strategy is of global proportions. The International Labor Organizations (ILO) reports that the number of children in abusive and oftentimes unsafe working conditions instead of school is increasing throughout the world. According to the ILO, those under the age of 15 constitute 11% of the workforce in some Asian countries and up to 26% in many Latin American nations. There are considerably more than 100,000,000 child laborers around the globe, many of whom work as bonded labor to repay debts owned by their parents. Some even are kidnapped or forced into labor.

The problem of child labor was brought into greater focus during the recent Mexican Free Trade Agreement. In Mexico, 5-10,000,000 youngsters are employed illegally, often in hazardous jobs and making products for export to the U.S. Thirteen-year-old girls have been found working 48-hour weeks producing electric wiring strips for General Electric in Nogales and dashboard components for General Motors at its Delnosa plant.

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated the use of exploitive and abusive child labor in goods imported to the U.S. The study, "By the Sweat and Toil of Children: The Use of Child Labor in American Imports," targeted 19 countries, where at least 46,000,000 youngsters work, many producing goods for the U.S. market. The report revealed a horrible picture of how children are contributing to their nation's export industry.

In Southeast Asia, where it is estimated that at least half of all child workers live, they toil 14-hour days in crowded factories and knot carpets for hours in dusty huts. American consumers buy more than 40% of India's carpet exports and account for over 50% of Bangladesh's earnings from garment exports.

Moreover, reports indicate that 10,000,000 of the 55,000,000 child workers in south Asia are bonded laborers. In Colombia, almost 800,000 children ages 12 through 17 are exposed to toxic substances as they process and harvest flowers for export.

Something needs to be done to discourage this practice. Children in developing countries, for the sake of their future and that of their economies, should be in schools and not in factories working long hours for little or no pay under hazardous conditions. That's why the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in Congress, aimed at eliminating a major form of child abuse internationally. It attempts to curb poverty by getting these kids out of hazardous, abusive working conditions and into school where they may receive an education and contribute productively to their economy. It also seeks to raise the standard of living in the Third World and to assist those governments in enforcing their laws by not providing a market for goods made by children.

The Child Labor Deterrence Act would prohibit the importation of any product made in whole or in part by youngsters under 15 who are employed in industry or mining. The legislation is intended to strengthen existing U.S. trade legislation, as well as help Third World countries enforce their child labor laws. In fact, most nations where child tabor is the biggest problem already have laws on the book against such exploitation, but they are not enforced.

In addition, the bill directs the U.S. Secretary of Labor to compile and maintain a list of foreign industries and their respective countries of origin that use child labor in the production of exports to the U.S. Once such a foreign industry has been identified, the Secretary of the Treasury is instructed to prohibit the entry of any of its goods. The entry ban would not apply if U.S. importers can certify that they took reasonable steps to ensure products were imported from identified industries not made by child labor. …

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