WHAT, IF ANYTHING, can the West do to help? The answer from the gut is to stop buying products of child labor. But humanitarian trade boycotts have seldom worked. Moreover, it is hard to argue that child labor in foreign countries is putting thousands of Americans out of work. Betamax VCRs from Japan, Hyundai cars from South Korea and other big-ticket contributors to the U.S. trade deficit are made by adults and robots, not children.

A better answer is to elevate the child-labor issue into a first-rank human-rights issue, on a par with torture of prisoners in South American jails. Congress, pushed by the AFL-CIO and led by Rep. Donald Pease (D-Ohio), has moved in that direction as a byproduct of a campaign to spotlight harsh labor conditions abroad. The trade bill now before the Senate contains a Pease amendment which would let U.S. companies file "unfair trade practice" cases if they believe they are harmed by competition from foreign countries that don't observe specified "workers rights." But the Pease amendment only calls for countries to have minimum-age laws, without defining what age is acceptable. Almost every country in the world already has such a law.

Exploitation on the job should be be treated as an issue of children's protection instead of trade protectionism. Once that is accepted, it is not hard to find ways to apply leverage: Western department stores and multinationals could adopt principles aimed at discouraging child labor, in the same way U.S. companies adopted the "Sullivan Principles" a decade ago in an attempt to better conditions for South African blacks. Stores could, for instance, require that garments from Thailand or glass beakers from India be made in the same factory from which they are purchased, not "sourced out" to unknown contractors that may use child labor. Western companies also could ask for manufacturers' certificates that products are not made in violation of local child-labor laws. Congress could insist on accurate descriptions of child labor in foreign countries in the human-rights reports it already requires annually from the State Department.The skimpiness of the labor sections contrasts with the department's franker, more effective reporting on political human-rights issues. Above all, UNICEF, the world agency devoted to protecting children's rights, could put the issue of exploited working children back on the world's agenda. Kenyan sociologist Philista Onyango says, "The International Monetary Fund does it, the World Bank does it, why not UNICEF? If I could influence a situation, I would try to do it. I would tell Morocco to clean up its act {in the carpet factories} or else. We should not treat these people gently."

UNICEF decisionmakers disagree. They prefer to direct UNICEF's efforts toward less controversial health projects that aim to keep children alive. This spring UNICEF published a glossy, self-congratulatory book entitled "The State of the World's Children, 1987." The book contained not a single reference to the predicament of the more than 88 million children around the world who work for a living.