Report: Child Labor Thriving

WASHINGTON — Child labor continues to flourish in countries around the world receiving U.S. trade benefits, according to a newly released U.S. Department of Labor report.<br><br>The report details the "worst forms" of child labor in 143 trade...

WASHINGTON — Child labor continues to flourish in countries around the world receiving U.S. trade benefits, according to a newly released U.S. Department of Labor report.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The report details the “worst forms” of child labor in 143 trade beneficiary countries in areas ranging from apparel, textile and footwear production to prostitution and agricultural work.

The 386-page report, issued as a requirement under the Trade and Development Act of 2000, gives country profiles on the percentage of estimated child labor in each country, as well as the ongoing efforts to eliminate it. It does not offer any measurement of whether a country has improved or worsened its child labor record.

At least nine countries abuse child labor in textile, apparel and footwear production, including Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela, as well as such territories as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to the report.

The International Labour Organization estimates that 28.2 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 were working in Bangladesh in 1999, the most recent data available, while 40.3 percent of children aged 5-14 worked in the Ivory Coast in 2000, according to UNICEF.

Children in these nine countries work in textile mills and garment factories, stitch leather footwear, dye leather in tanneries and help their mothers sew garments on a piecework basis.

Congress appropriated $45 million and earmarked it for the ILO, and gave an additional $37 million to the U.S. Labor Department’s own child labor initiative in the fiscal year that ends in September, according to a Labor official who requested anonymity. The administration has proposed that $30 million be earmarked for the Geneva-based ILO in the fiscal 2003 budget.

The funds are used for international programs that provide children access to education in areas of a high incidence of exploitative and abusive child labor. Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs manages programs and issues grants under a Child Labor Education Initiative. The ILO often works in conjunction with the Labor Department as the grantee.

In April, labor officials awarded a $4 million grant to implement educational programs for children removed from or at risk of entering child labor in El Salvador. It has also awarded similar grants to Nepal and Tanzania.

Despite these ongoing programs, many labor and human rights groups claim the Bush administration is backing away from the Clinton administration’s efforts to tie labor provisions to trade benefits in free-trade agreements. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has always maintained that trade agreements that contain sanctions to enforce labor and environmental provisions are ineffective.

Patricia Campos, legislative director of UNITE, said the ILO has no power to enforce child labor standards. She said the U.S. should fine countries on specific products if they violate child labor laws or revoke trade privileges.

“We would like the World Trade Organization to have a labor rights enforcement mechanism just like it has a financial and property rights enforcement mechanism,” Campos said. “A country can be penalized for not enforcing property rights, but not for failing to enforce labor rights and that is a big concern.”

The Labor official has a much different perspective.

“Sometimes a carrot [educational programs] works better than a stick [enforcement],” she said. “The idea is not whether or not this international provision will be enforced, but the fact that a government has to make a commitment to deal with the problem, while the ILO provides assistance to help do so.”