Chipping away at child labor
International outcry led to last week's high-profile calls to action.
In Indonesia, they work on isolated fishing platforms, working heavy nets for long hours, often on very little food.Skip to next paragraph
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In Haiti, they face slavery and sexual servitude in households to which they are driven by poverty.
In Uganda, Sudan, and elsewhere, they serve as front-line soldiers, required to kill.
Under a new convention, adopted June 17 by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO), an arm of the United Nations, the "work" that falls to millions of the world's children will be banned.
The convention, which seeks to outlaw "the worst forms of child labor" - including slavery, sexual exploitation, and hazardous or heavy manual labor - also includes a ban on forcible military recruitment.
The gulf between adopting a well-meaning convention and really pulling the plug on abuses is vast. But there are some signs of progress.
It is a cause with momentum. A day earlier, President Clinton had called for the worst forms of child labor to be "wiped from the earth." And in the days after, the Group of Seven (G-7) richest nations pledged to help implement the ILO's call.
Save the Children, a London-based group that has campaigned for 15 years against child labor, largely welcomed the convention. But spokeswoman Rachel Marcus says: "It is important to make sure it is not just on paper but implemented as well."
The ILO, which groups trade unions, businesses, and governments, estimates that about 250 million children aged 5 to 14 are working in developing countries - half of those full time while the rest combine work and school. As many as 60 million of those are under 11.
THE number engaged in the "most abusive" forms is unclear but probably runs into the millions. Activists hope the attention will trickle down to all working children.
By some estimates, 300,000 to 1 million children are working illegally in the United States, most of them in agriculture.
Earlier this month, Mr. Clinton ordered US federal agencies to list products suspected of being made by forced child labor. He also required federal contractors to certify no abusive child labor went into goods they buy.
The administration has identified problem industries, including those making carpets and bricks in India and Pakistan, fireworks in Guatemala, and the use of fishing platforms in Indonesia.
Critics say Clinton should seek to make such protection part of free-trade agreements. Ms. Marcus of Save the Children and other children's-rights campaigners say the chief problem is implementation. There has been a general ILO convention on child labor for years, but many countries still have not ratified it. ILO officials say they have no illusions the new convention will be universally applied, but argue the ratification process is crucial for raising public awareness.
The group has bodies that monitor compliance with its conventions, but they have no disciplinary power over offending national governments.
"We should not underestimate the difficulties in getting ministries of labor to improve their inspection of workplaces, particularly in countries where resources are low," Marcus says.
Child labor has powered much of Indonesia's economy, for example - from the rubber plantations of Sulawesi to shoe factories on the main island of Java. Indonesia has yet to sign on to the new ILO convention.
President B.J. Habibie has indicated his willingness to ratify it, but development workers based in Indonesia say that may take some time. It's still too early to tell how well the ban on "ordinary" child labor, which Indonesia signed in May, will be enforced, let alone attempts to abolish hazardous jobs.
And Indonesia is still suffering from an economic crisis that has bumped millions back into poverty, an incentive for parents to have a child help fill the family coffers.
The government estimated last year that 2.1 million children were working, a figure one ILO official in Indonesia, Pandji Putranto, calls extremely conservative. He points out that some 6.5 million children have dropped out of elementary and junior high schools in the last year. Many are working as street vendors.
The ILO estimates more than 70 percent of Indonesia's child labor takes place in the agricultural sector. In October, the ILO is set to work with North Sumatra on one of Indonesia's most hazardous child-labor jobs - working on offshore fishing platforms.