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Selling Childhood

IN Zimbabwe, children as young as seven work on tobacco and cotton plantations.

In Indonesia, children in light-bulb factories work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week, earning the equivalent of $3 a week.

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In India, more than 1 million children work as bonded laborers in brick kilns, construction, and stone quarrying. An estimated 100,000 work in carpet-weaving and another 28,000 in mines, crawling through tunnels less than a yard wide.

In Latin America, at least a quarter of all children in some countries work. And in the United States, an estimated 2 million children work illegally.

For millions of children like these around the world, childhood revolves around tools instead of toys. Sweatshops and agricultural fields replace classrooms, and stern taskmasters take the place of teachers.

Some children work to relieve their family's desperate poverty. Others become indentured servants, inheriting their parents' debt bondage. Still others must earn money for textbooks and school. Whatever the reason, their wages are usually pitifully low. Long hours and dangerous working conditions jeopardize their health and their lives.

According to the latest "World Labour Report," issued by the International Labour Office in Geneva, the plight of child workers has worsened dramatically in recent years. Yet few countries have developed plans to deal with the problem.

As a beginning, the Swiss-based organization is calling for such practical steps as improving and enforcing legislation, promoting school enrollment, raising public awareness, and targeting hazardous environments. Other child advocates in the US are pressing for legislation that would ban the import of products made by child labor.

Tomorrow, June 25, marks the 44th anniversary of the signing of the National Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in the United States, which prohibits child labor in interstate industries. Despite the law, a government study shows a 250 percent increase in the US in child labor law violations between 1983 and 1990.

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Two years ago this fall, heads of state from all over the world gathered at the United Nations for a high-visibility conference on children. Spirits - and hopes - ran high. But platitudes and photo ops are not enough to ensure the basic rights of children - the right to safety, health, and protection from exploitation.

The International Labour Office report serves as a needed reminder that whatever measurable short-term gains families and employers derive from the youngest laborers, the long-term losses are incalculable in terms of what the report calls "a diminished contribution in the future" from those whose education, health, and energy have been sold short during childhood.

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