New Spotlight on Reform of Exploited Child Labor

Article excerpt

The relentness and growing problem of exploited child labor was hardly an issue outside human rights organizations until celebrities like talk show cohost Kathie Lee Gifford got caught in the glare of bad publicity.

The Gifford case, especially, has managed in recent months to focus the bright lights of the media on child workers as Gifford struggles to rid her Walmart clothing line of exploited labor.

As a result of the media attention, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich could tell some 200 people who attended the recent Child Labor Conference in Washington, "The struggle against child labor is becoming a genuine movement. Just a few years ago, the child labor issue was barely a `blip' on the global agenda. No longer."

Not only is the problem more public, but there are clear signs that even as it is growing, significant steps are being taken to fight the problem.

The three-day conference, organized by the Child Labor Coalition, a group of 35 non-government organizations concerned about the increase in child labor worldwide, started in an almost celebratory atmosphere.

Fourteen-year-olds Amanda Loos and Amy Papile of Quincy, Mass., told of raising more than $100,000 for a school in Pakistan honoring the memory of the 12-year-old Pakistani activist, Iqbal Masih. The two Massachusetts girls had met Masih when he traveled to Boston to accept Reebok's Youth in Action award. Masih, a former slave in Pakistan's carpet industry, was murdered in his village on Easter 1995, just months after Loos and Papile had met him.

Thirteen-year-old Canadian Craig Kielburger, who has been interviewed on CBS's "60 Minutes" for his unrelenting efforts to end child labor, spoke of creating an organization, Free the Children, run by children. Their goal is to raise $300,000 to build schools and a re-education center in South Asia, also in memory of Iqbal Masih.

Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker's Federation, reminded the gathering that "We have many reasons to continue to be sad; children continue to suffer across the world. We have many reasons to continue to be concerned; the number of working children has not decreased ... but has, in fact, increased."

Panudda Boonpala, program officer of the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, concurred. Boonpala noted, "In the last 10 years, I got the impression that we would see a reduction in the magnitude of the problem. But it is the opposite."

Three and a half million Brazilian children are part of that flood of young workers. Oded Grajew, former president of the Latin American Toy Makers Association, has become a "beacon of light" for those children, according to Sonia Rosen, director of the International Child Labor Study Project at the U.S. Department of Labor. Inspired by the belief that the exploitation of children in Brazil has to do "with every citizen, every businessman and every consumer" in his country, Grajew founded the Abring Foundation for Children's Rights five years ago.

In some of the most exploitative industries in his country, Grajew convinced fellow businessmen to join his foundation and his compaign -- Businessmen: Friends of Children. The 2,000 companies that joined his Abring Foundation had to agree to rid themselves and their suppliers of child labor and to reimburse the families of the children for the lost income when the children went to school instead of work.

Grajew then turned his sights on the Brazilian government. At one point, the soft-spoken, distinguished-looking businessman and a number of other executives picketed the Brazilian equivalent of the White House. The sight, recalled Grajew with a smile, "was something different. We are businessmen. It can be something very comfortable."

In an effort that might raise their comfort level, the Brazilian government worked with Grajew and his business friends and, hours before his plane left for Washington, Grajew attended a formal signing of a national pact along with the president and first lady of Brazil, all the country's ministers, all 26 governors, all the national unions and all the national associations of businessmen. …