We don't like to think about it, and most of the time we can't be sure, but there's a chance the fruits and vegetables we eat, soccer balls we buy for our kids and carpets we put in our homes are the products of child labor.
Statistics on child labor are notoriously untrustworthy, but the International Labor Organization estimates that 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working, either full or part time, and that tens of millions of them are working under dangerous and abusive conditions. The ILO, a United Nations agency made up of representatives from 174 countries, has taken the lead in international efforts to eliminate child labor and to move children out of the workplace and into the classroom.
According to the ILO, 61 percent of the world's working children are in Asia, 32 percent are in Africa and 7 percent are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most children work in agriculture, services and small-scale manufacturing shops that are not covered by national labor laws.
Instead of being exposed to math, science and literature, many of the world's working children are exposed to hazards, danger and abuse. Children working in agriculture come into contact with harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as sharp tools.
In Brazil, children often suffer eye, hand and arm injuries from cutting the spiny sisal plant and processing it with sharp tools, according to an ILO report. Brazilian welfare groups and unions also estimate that close to 150,000 children are employed as orange harvesters during the six-month season. They pick oranges in severe heat, for up to 12 hours a day, and some end up with fingertips eroded by toxic pesticides and citric acid.
A survey of 12 states in Mexico found that children ages 7 to 14 make up 30 percent of the agricultural workers. During peak seasons, close to half of the Kenyans involved in planting, weeding and harvesting on sugar estates are children. Tens of thousands of children harvest cotton in Egypt. Estimates of child workers in Pakistan have ranged as high as 19 million, with 7 million in the 5- to 9-year-old range. Thousands work in Pakistan's soccer ball industry.
The globalization of commerce has drawn attention to the problem of child labor and fueled international efforts to end it. Six months ago, President Clinton traveled to Geneva to urge the ILO to adopt a treaty designed to end the worst forms of child labor. The convention was adopted unanimously by the ILO in June and approved by the U.S. Senate on Nov. 5. President Clinton signed the document during the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, making the United States the first industrialized country to ratify the treaty. The Republic of Seychelles was the first to ratify it, and Malawi was the second.
The convention requires ratifying countries to "take immediate and effective measures" to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labor and to put these children into free, basic education. It protects all children under the age of 18 and defines the worst forms of child labor as slavery, bondage, prostitution, drug trafficking and work likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.
In a telephone interview, Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman said that tens of millions of children are working in dreadful circumstances. "Child labor is a very old problem," she said, "but the recent rapid growth of international trade has raised grave concerns by consumers. We know many of these goods today are made by children." The treaty will not affect children working on family farms, but "we expect large farms will be covered."
No changes will be required in U.S. laws, although she said, "there's no doubt we still have child labor in our country." She has stepped up efforts to enforce the labor laws that forbid children to work full time until they are 16 and that shield them from hazardous work until they are 18. The Labor Department had found that Toys R Us was employing about 300 teenagers in violation of labor rules protecting minors, she said, and last Thursday the department signed an agreement with the chain under which it agreed to audit its stores for labor law compliance.
The treaty requires ILO member countries to make an annual report of child labor in their countries. "I believe having an annual reporting process and a document for the first time that will hold member countries accountable will be powerful politically along with moral persuasion," Herman said. "For consumers today, this will be a powerful document."
The Labor Department is working with various trade associations to identify industries that employ child labor. She said children are employed on Latin American coffee plantations, in garment factories in Bangladesh, in carpet factories in Pakistan and in fireworks production in Guatemala. She said the United States is immediately banning the import of small cigars from India that are made by bonded children. "For the first time we are putting stricter controls on goods being imported into the U.S. because of bonded child labor."
Child labor contributes to the incomes of some of the poorest families in the world. But no better formula could be contrived for keeping these families in poverty. What this treaty has a chance of doing is breaking this cycle by moving children into classrooms. Children who can read and write have a far better chance of making a permanent difference in their families' standard of living than children who are put to work when they should be learning.