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Protection of World's Young: Clocking Out on Child Labor

How to keep out of harm's way has become a more public issue

By Amelia A. NewcombSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 1994


ON the roadsides of Bombay or down crowded alleys in Manila or in the back rooms of Bogota, children weave rugs, pound metal, or handle toxic substances, often for 14 hours a day and for little pay.

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Their wares often end up in the world's largest importer - the United States - with American consumers unaware of their origin.

The global problem of child labor is often overlooked by the major powers. Now, however, there are signs of change.

The US, for the first time, has begun efforts to curb child labor overseas. The Senate has taken up a measure that would bar imports of child-made goods. Exporters in such places as India, Honduras, and Bangladesh are scrambling to change their labor practices.

The impact has been felt worldwide:

* In India, more than 130 carpetmakers are part of a ``Rugmark'' campaign that tags products as made without child labor.

* In Bangladesh, the Garment Manufacturers and Export Association formally agreed this month to ban hiring children under 14. They also agreed to make provisions for educating children who work full time.

* In the US, the Liz Claiborne company moved swiftly to inspect its manufacturing facilities after a Senate hearing in September revealed that child workers were involved in making the company's sweaters. Other companies have also been working on ``codes of conduct'' to address child labor.

``The US is the world's largest importer of manufactured products from developing countries, and that puts a special onus on us to think of what we can do,'' says Robert Senser, who has written extensively on human rights in employment.

US acts domestically

Congress failed to pass the Child Labor Deterrence Act this year, but advocates are optimistic for passage in the next session. In the meantime, recent events have focused new attention on how US imports are manufactured overseas.

A US Department of Labor report issued in September targeted 19 countries where at least 46 million children allegedly toil, making goods for the US market. A follow-up report is expected next year to identify companies that produce or sell such items.

``This report has more impact because it comes from the US government,'' says Sonia Rosen, who directed the study for the department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs. ``It keeps the issue up on the radar screen.''

The Labor Department report reveals an unsavory picture of how children contribute to their nations' exports.

In Colombia, about 800,000 children aged 12 through 17 are exposed to toxic substances while they process and harvest flowers for export. In South and Southeast Asia, where the International Labor Organization estimates at least half of all child workers live, children sew clothing during 14-hour days in crowded garment factories and knot carpets for hours on end in dusty huts.

In Africa, there is growing concern that more and more children will end up sewing garments or mining minerals as nations build factories and families flock to cities.

While rural child labor has long existed, urban child labor increased in the past two decades. The garment industry in Bangladesh, for example, among the largest suppliers of cotton clothing in the US, sprang to life about 10 years ago.