Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — A Labor Department hearing today will examine the issue of having imported consumer products like apparel and footwear carry a made-without-child-labor label.
A seal of approval for the conditions under which imports are made has been an increasingly hot topic in Washington, either in connection with garment sweatshops or Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D., Iowa) efforts to get a child-labor-free label bill through Congress. Union and human rights members of the President’s anti-sweatshop task force want the panel to create a no-sweatshop label system for apparel and footwear importers to use.
Labeling initiatives have been fiercely opposed by many importers — including apparel and footwear companies on the task force — as a matter both burdensome and difficult to police.
Proponents argue that labels would put pressure on bad actors to clean up their factories, since consumers would be drawn to buy goods carrying no-sweatshop or child-free-labor assurances. In order to be qualified to carry a label, manufacturers would be required to participate in a factory monitoring program.
The hearing is intended to examine these various labeling issues by examining fledgling child-free-labeling efforts in the soccer ball, tea, Brazilian leather footwear and hand-knotted carpet industry.
“Today’s hearing will help Congress and the task force find ways to get American consumers involved in the war against abusive labor practices,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Cynthia Metzler.
The agency’s interest in child labor was initiated by Harkin four years ago when he first mandated that the agency study the occurrence of children producing goods for the U.S. market.
Three reports have been issued by Labor on the subject, each detailing various industries and Third World countries where child labor has been found.
The agency, as well as other groups focusing on child labor, has found it difficult to pinpoint how widespread the employment of children is or which sectors, or countries, are the worst offenders.
According to Labor’s most recent report on the issue, there is a sense that the employment of children in Third World apparel factories has decreased as a result of U.S. retailer pressure after facing bad publicity about selling garments made by children. Nevertheless, while apparel factories aren’t considered the worst child labor offenders, its presence still exists, the report concluded.
The International Labor Organization estimates about 5 percent of 120 million working children between the ages of five and 14 produce consumer goods for export, including apparel.

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