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Aiming at Child Labor

MORE than 200 million children are forced to work daily like adults.

Simon van der Meer, a Netherlander who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1984, made this simple, sobering declaration at a recent Labor Department hearing, coincident with announcing the formation of a group called ChildRight Worldwide, which numbers more than 100 other Nobel prize winners among its members.

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ChildRight Worldwide will undertake a three-year study of the exploitation of child labor, giving particular attention to India, Africa, and Latin America. Children under 15 are said to represent 17 percent of the work force in parts of Africa and between 12 and 26 percent in many countries of Latin America.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department itself is completing an international survey to identify countries and industries that use child labor to make products exported to the United States. Anticipating the results, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa is sponsoring the Child Labor Deterrence Act, designed to prohibit importation of products from overseas companies that appear on the Labor Department list of offenders.

To critics who argue that his legislation would be unworkable, Senator Harkin responds, ``If we can ban the importation of the spotted green turtle, we can ban the importation of products made with child labor.''

It may take careful language to keep the measure from being protectionist. But if nothing is done, 400 million children may be in the world's labor force by the end of the century, according to a United Nations forecast.

At the beginning of the century, Americans stood proudly at the forefront of reform, indignantly exposing and outlawing child labor in the garment sweatshops of New York. Almost 100 years later, backsliding is evident: A government report indicates that violations of US child-labor laws nearly tripled between 1985 and 1989.

Furthermore, the US remains the only industrial nation that has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN more than five years ago.

This country has some catching up to do; here is a compassionate cause where the US, of all nations, should be a leader rather than a straggler. Identifying and measuring the exploitation of child workers is a start. The fuller picture may not be seen until ChildRight Worldwide completes its investigation. But the facts that will emerge from the Labor Department report in mid-July are certain to be stark enough to prompt the passing of Harkin's Child Labor Deterrence Act, or something like it.

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In the meantime, the US should sign the UN Convention. The world's children cannot wait.

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