Children and Trade

The United States, France, and Canada have staked out a lonely position at the World Trade Organization meeting in Singapore this week. They want to use the international trade forum to discuss labor standards - specifically, the use of children in industrial work forces.

This stand is fiercely opposed by developing countries in Asia and elsewhere. They see it as interference with local custom and as an attempt to thwart one of their few economic advantages: low-cost labor. Malaysia, India, and others argue that child labor and other human rights concerns have no place at a trade conference. Some developed nations agree.

Those trying to make the economic exploitation of children an issue probably won't prevail, but they're not laboring in vain. Their motives may not be entirely pure: Countries like the US feel domestic political pressures to do something about competition from cheap foreign labor. But the lot of some 250 million children in unhealthy workplaces, cut off from any hope of a better future, is a human rights concern of the greatest purity.

That perception can't be forced on other governments. But it's rightly raised. Trade and commerce are realms where individual rights should be progressively recognized, not stubbornly ignored.

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