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Ending Child Labor: Tall Task for Nations

Children working for less than a dollar an hour, unable to leave their sewing machines for their 12 hour shift, locked inside the factory at night. These harsh experiences are not the exclusive domain of poor countries.

"We've identified the scourge of sweatshops in our midst.... In some of the sweatshops, we have found child labor," says Robert Reich, the US Labor Secretary, in a Monitor interview. Though such cases are rare, "it's very important not to be sanctimonious."

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In so saying, Mr. Reich puts America on common ground with many of the 173 nations assembled for the International Labor Organization's annual labor conference from June 4 to 20 in Geneva. By 1999, the ILO, a United Nations agency, hopes to develop a convention banning the most severe forms of child labor: forced or slave labor, prostitution, and labor in mines and glassworks.

More than 73 million children under age 15 work, according to the ILO. Asia has the most child workers, 44.6 million, Africa has 23.6 million, and Latin America 5.1 million. These numbers may underestimate the problem, adds Assefa Bequele, an ILO child labor specialist. "No reliable figures on workers under 10 are available," he says, "though their numbers, we know, are significant."

Though experts say the problem has been growing, ILO spokesman Jon Doohan says more countries are willing to admit they have child labor and are trying to change it.

Among the possible solutions being discussed here:

National programs to move children out of factories. This is happening in Bangladesh, partly because business and government officials realize the country risks losing millions of dollars in investment if 30 percent of its children continue to work, and thus remain poorly educated.

"Today's child worker will be tomorrow's uneducated and untrained adult, forever trapped in grinding poverty," says ILO director-general Michel Hansenne.

Unilateral trade sanctions. In America, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa has proposed banning US imports of goods produced by children. The European Union has introduced similar conditions into some of its trade agreements.

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But not all diplomats favor trade sanctions. Even the threat of sanctions can create underground industries with even worse conditions than existed before, says Jean-Luc Nordmann, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Industry. In Asia, an ILO report notes, the threat of trade sanctions led garment-industry employers to fire tens of thousands of children, many of whom then found more-hazardous work.

Voluntary labeling and third-party monitoring. Reich says the ILO should consider this approach, which would certify that goods are produced without child labor and in non-sweatshop conditions. Already many Indian rugs bear a label certifying they were produced without child labor.

Mr. Doohan says labeling would likely be too complex for the organization to enforce. But he adds, "Anything that raises the awareness of the need to produce goods in a humane environment, we would support in principle."

Incorporating "core labor standards" into international free-trade agreements. French President Jacques Chirac says that, to maintain support for free trade, people must be assured that all countries follow basic labor standards. France, like the US, says the World Trade Organization must tackle the issue. It's not right, he argues, to say the ILO is responsible for labor standards and the WTO only for commerce.

WTO director-general Renato Ruggerio has said labor standards merit a discussion, but they won't get on the agenda of this December's WTO ministerial meeting without the support of the 100-plus member states.

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