Child Labor Feeds Global Market Profits

By Kamm, Lynn | National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 1995 | Go to article overview

Child Labor Feeds Global Market Profits


Kamm, Lynn, National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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