The World of Child Labor

By Tierney Jr., John J. | The World and I, August 2000 | Go to article overview

The World of Child Labor


Tierney Jr., John J., The World and I


To most Americans the problem of exploitative child labor disappeared generations ago with the passage of child labor laws and the elimination of dangerous "sweatshop" conditions. But the problem of child exploitation--an iniquitous subset of a much larger economically and socially legitimate and family-friendly culture of child work--is a living reality in many areas of the developing world, and the issue has commanded growing attention in the Western world.

As Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) told a U.S. Department of Labor hearing in 1997,

"In an age of computers, fiber optics, and space travel, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the world--including our own backyard-- children are sold into servitude, chained to machines, and forced to work under the most dangerous and unsanitary conditions. For most American consumers, the plight of these children has been as distant as a novel by Charles Dickens--not a present-day reality."

Some of that changed in 1998, however, when television personality Kathy Lee Gifford was accused of permitting the exploitation of children in Honduran factories that manufactured clothes bearing her designer label. Gifford denied the charge and testified against child abuse before Congress, thus defusing the issue at the time.

Yet most Americans still find the idea of abusing children for profit repugnant--notwithstanding the long tradition of child labor in U.S. industries and farms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when America itself was a developing country. A survey conducted by Marymount University found that more than three out of four Americans would avoid shopping at stores if they were aware that the goods sold were made by exploitative and abusive child labor.

The issue also reverberated against various U.S. sporting goods manufacturers, including Reebok, after allegations of abusive child labor conditions in soccer ball factories in Pakistan. These charges forced an overhaul of the soccer industry's approach to the child labor issue. Three concrete steps were undertaken by the industry in mid- 1996: Subcontracting was eliminated, cooperation with the government was instituted, and monitoring of the soccer industry commenced.

In a 1998 hearing, Tom Cove, vice president of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, told a Labor Department hearing that "I am proud to report today that the U.S. soccer industry, with the help of many essential partners, has been true to all three of these explicit commitments."

A NEED FOR REGULATION

These are positive steps and reflect a mounting awareness that child labor abuse is a growing international problem that needs regulation. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is probably the nation's top lawmaker in this area. His Child-Labor-Free Consumer Information Act of 1997 would institute a voluntary labeling system for certifying that sporting goods and wearing apparel were made without child labor abuse.

"We need that," Harkin told a government panel, "because today the price we see for an item in a store--like a soccer ball or tennis shoes or a shirt or a blouse--tells us how much we have to pay for it. But it doesn't tell us how much someone else had to pay to make it."

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working, mostly in the developing world. About half of these work full time, while tens of millions work under conditions defined as "exploitative and harmful." The majority of the 250 million are found in Asia (61 percent), followed by Africa (32 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (7 percent).

Until recently, child labor was not a widely recognized global concern. It was not until 1993 that the U.S. Department of Labor, under congressional mandate, began researching and documenting the issue. International public attention regarding child labor has grown steadily over the past several years, however, and has provoked a global discussion of the problem and possible solutions. …

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