By and  on December 11, 2011

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich struck a nerve in the fashion industry and in human and labor rights circles after calling child labor laws “truly stupid” in a public appearance last month.

Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House who has gained significant ground in the polls and is seriously challenging Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination, said: “It’s tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children, in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.”

His remarks, made at an appearance at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, raised some red flags with labor advocates and apparel executives who have fought for decades to overcome the stigma of sweatshops and child labor. U.S. retailers and brands have spent years developing corporate social responsibility programs to curb workers’ rights abuses and minimize labor law violations in the countries where their apparel is made.

While the fashion industry has made significant strides, labor abuse in the garment industries around the world still remains and Gingrich’s apparent call to relax child labor laws was resoundingly rejected by those who have fought for stronger enforcement and even stricter standards.

“This is a particularly sensitive issue because it involves children,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “We as an industry are sensitive to child labor and other industries are as well. We try to set an example in the U.S. for partners around the world to follow their own laws. When you have a candidate for president advocating relaxation in those laws, it calls into question the commitment. I hope the Speaker clarifies his remarks at some point.”

In one instance, the fashion industry has galvanized around the effort to eradicate the alleged use of forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, making strides, though obstacles remain. More than 60 U.S. and European companies and trade groups signed a pledge in September to “not knowingly source” Uzbek cotton using forced child labor.

“We as an industry support child labor laws both in the U.S. and labor norms internationally, and we require that companies that do business with retailers adhere to those laws,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. “Uzbekistan is a great example of the problems of child labor. Here you have children pulled out of school by the government to go out and work in the cotton fields in fairly demanding physical agricultural labor, where they are exposed to pesticides and potentially dangerous conditions. It is a deplorable situation.”

The International Labor Organization estimates that 211 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work around the world, including in the U.S. Of these, 120 million children are working full time to help support their impoverished families and are often exposed to harmful and dangerous conditions.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, which has been involved in the Uzbekistan issue for four years, said: “Mr. Gingrich’s comments, made in a seemingly offhanded manner that then required additional clarification, indicate how little appreciation he has for child welfare policy debates, not to mention international norms. The problem with relaxing child labor laws is it will quickly put us on a slippery slope of condoning many more egregious forms of child labor and essentially flouting the decades of hard work and gains secured for children by venerable organizations such as UNICEF and the International Labor Organization’s IPEC program to eradicate child labor.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act generally allows minors over 14 to work in most jobs with exceptions for minors under that age.

In the same public forum, Gingrich went on to say that inner-city children should maintain their own schools in order to learn the value of earning an honest living. He said most public schools should replace unionized janitors with one “master janitor” and pay local students to take care of the school.

Though Gingrich has since tried to explain his proposals, the message remains the same. His campaign did not return a call seeking comment.

Steven Jesseph, president and ceo of WRAP, a non-profit organization dedicated to the certification of lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing throughout the world working with many apparel factories and retailers, said, “Child labor laws were established in the U.S. and around the world for the protection of children and to establish a minimum legal age for children to enter the workforce.”

Jesseph noted that these laws were written to offer some protection regarding the type of work they could do so as to not endanger their safety or the heath.

He pointed out the allowance of apprenticeship programs in national and state laws calling for supervised work for young workers, and that there are also stipulations that allow children to work in family-owned businesses. In addition, many schools already have programs that give young children “jobs,” such as working in administrative or nurse’s offices, so Gingrich’s comments are both off base and misleading.

In the Republican debate in Des Moines on Saturday, Romney said he does not share Gingrich’s position on easing child labor laws.

“He (Gingrich) said he would eliminate in some cases the child labor laws so that kids can clean schools. I don’t agree with that idea,” said Romney, who was asked to list their differences.

Gingrich, while not addressing his comments on child labor laws, did seek to clarify his comments about inner-city school children working as janitors.

“What I suggested, was kids ought to be allowed to work part-time in school, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods…because they can use the money. If you take one-half of the New York janitors that are unionized and are paid more than the teachers…you could give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library and in the front office, a lot of different things.”

Romney responded, saying having students work in the library or cleaning blackboards “does not require changing our child labor laws in this country.”

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