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A plea for exploited children

Six children found working in a Thai confectionery factory are unable to walk after squatting for long periods wrapping toffee. A British social worker is able to buy two boys, aged 12 and 13, from a "child catcher" in Bangkok for a total of $35. He estimates that more the 500 children a week are "bought and sold" in the railway station during the dry season.

These are only two incidents charged by the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human rights before a United Nations panel on slavery. It calls the children involved some of the world's estimated 200 million "forgotten people" -- working children under age 15.

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And the problem isn't only in Asia. Italy, the society says, has the high est number of child workers in the nine-nation European Economic Community. But efforts by its investigators to discover the facts and figures indicate a "Mafia-type control" over clandestine employment which makes children scared to give their names or identify their employers. Nearly all working children are employed in small workshops, particularly in producing leather goods such as shoes, bags, and gloves.

Few child workers are recognized in official labor statistics. They can rarely claim normal workers' rights, and many are confined in illegal sweatshops. Although international conventyions and national laws ban child labor in many countries, the laws are often flouted. Only a scandal brings the situation into the open.

Jose Martinez Cobo of Ecuador, a member of the UN antislavery panel, describes child-labor abuse as "one of the most odious forms of exploitation." The panel has recommended that the UN human-rights subcommission draw up an international declaration of minimum standards for the protection of working children.

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