THERE is a movement to require product labels from overseas to say not only ``made in India'' or ``made in Mexico'' - but also to say ``made without child labor.'' The idea is designed to combat the exploitation of children; and it is a new tactic in the international human rights movement.
In many poor countries, parents sell their children into slavery for a handful of cash. The children, as young as six, are condemned to short lives of hard labor and cruel treatment.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act so Americans will not buy products made with such labor. It bans imports that involve children under 15 working in mines or factories. The Clinton administration hasn't yet given its position. But it is supported by the AFL-CIO, which has always opposed child labor and maintains that exploiting children is an unfair trade practice that undercuts American goods. Efforts to get similar laws are underway in Germany and England.
The campaign was initiated by the South Asia Coalition on Child Servitude in India. Presently in India, 300,000 children make hand-knotted carpets, 40 percent of which are sold in the United States. Children are favored because the task is simple - tying knots and cutting threads. They do it for next to nothing.
Indian carpet manufacturers send agents to small villages and promise parents $10 to $25 upfront, plus wages the child sends home. In some cases, parents are given loans or advances that children must repay. The children are taken far away, locked up, paid little or nothing, and abused if they protest. They are enslaved.
Keilash Satyarthi, chair of the South Asia Coalition, says young bonded laborers are commonly beaten, girls are raped, and youngsters are hung upside down on trees if they try to run away or cry for their mothers.
When Senator Harkin introduced his bill in March he told the Senate of a 12-year-old Indian, Charitra Chowdhary, who said, ``If we moved slowly we were beaten on our backs with a stick. We wanted to run away, but the doors were always locked.''
An Indian Supreme Court report told of a 14-year-old who was murdered after he tried to organize other children and demand proper wages; it mentioned children who disappeared after their parents demanded their return. Most were illiterate and untouchable. Local police and officials are often bribed to look the other way.
SUCH conditions also exist in Pakistan and Nepal, other large producers of carpets. Together, the three countries employ a million children in the carpet industry. The United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) says that half of the 50,000 children working as bonded laborers in Pakistan's carpet shops will die before age 12.
Mr. Satyarthi says some companies have branched out. Pakistanis sell girls as slaves to merchants from Iraq and Iran; the Nepalese deal girls to Indian brothels.
The problem is not confined to carpetmaking or the Indian subcontinent. Children are used there and elsewhere to make leather, glass, metal, garments, jewelry, and granite or marble stones. The ILO estimates that as many as 200 million children work throughout the world.
Harkin told the Senate that in Mexico, 13-year-old girls work 48 hours a week to make electric wiring strips for General Electric and dashboard components for General Motors. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a finding of a pattern of failure to enforce child labor laws in a trade-related sector could lead to fines and sanctions.
Often, children are employed instead of adults because they are easily intimidated. In India, says Satyarthi, there are 55 million child laborers and the same number of unemployed adults.
Human rights groups and trade unions in the US and Europe are taking up this issue. So far, some US corporations are developing a code of ethics that include bans on the use of child labor to make their products. Levi Strauss, the makers of jeans, pulled out of China and Burma because of pervasive human rights violations. Some Indian carpet manufacturers, frightened of an embargo, have started the Association of Carpet Manufacturers Without Child Labor. The very name is an ironic acknowledgment of the common practice. It will label members' carpets ``child-labor-free.''
But there still needs to be accountability. Satyarthi wants to change a clause in the Harkin bill that would allow the import of products if the importer attests they are made without child labor. He wants certification done by independent agencies in the countries.
Linking imports to human rights is not new. In the 1980s, Congress banned tariff benefits for countries violating labor rights, including child labor.
But execution of the laws was vitiated by the Reagan and Bush administrations, which routinely ruled against enforcement petitions brought by the AFL-CIO and other groups.
The proposed law would make enforcement politically easier; it is directed against offending companies, not entire countries.
There is no indication that this law will be passed. But just as local boycotts against South Africa preceded legislative sanctions, a boycott of goods manufactured by exploited child labor can be a start. Whether sanctions are mandated or privately adopted, the Indian carpetmakers are clearly worried. American importers would do well to make sure they are not likely targets. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.