Banning child-sweatshop imports. US bill would keep such third-world products out of US

The tale of two carpets in a Maryland Oriental rug store illustrates why Rep. George Miller, Congress's leading protector of children, wants to ban from American markets all products made overseas by children working in deplorable conditions. Such a step would help protect the children from exploitation, he says. By the millions they are virtually slave laborers in third-world economies, separated from family, education, and hope, he says.

The two gorgeous room-size rugs lie side by side on the spartan salesroom floor. In quality as in size they seem virtually the same: Both are wool, finely woven in the flowered ``Chinese rug'' style now popular in the United States.

But one clear difference is apparent: the price. The rug actually made in China sells for $2,000; the other carpet, woven in India, sells for only $1,000.

Why the disparity? The salesman shrugs and turns away. The answer may lie in who too often weaves rugs in India and other parts of the third world: children.

As a series three months ago in this newspaper documented, children are preferred workers in much of the third world because they work faster, longer, and for less money than adults.

They are more pliant and, for specific purposes such as making fine rugs, more skilled. Result: goods they produce, often for export, are less expensive than those made by adults, and help third-world nations meet the West's demand for these products.

When children work, often as much as 70 hours a week and in unhealthy conditions, they cannot go to school. Their future is severely blighted.

The problem, Representative Miller said in an interview, ``is probably getting worse.'' Most of the child workers are between 10 and 15, but some are as young as 5.

``At a minimum,'' Mr. Miller, a California Democrat, says, ``we're talking about tens of millions of children who are engaged in oppressive working conditions.''

That figure may be conservative. The Monitor series quoted International Labor Organization estimates that at least 58 million children work for wages worldwide, most in the third world. Other estimates put the total at 100 million to 200 million. The series noted that it is an uphill battle to try to end worldwide child labor and other forms of child exploitation.

Miller says he thinks his proposal, introduced as a bill in Congress, would help deal with the problem, an old one that has ``been with us historically in every economy.''

Charles Dickens wrote about it in his 19th-century expos'es on child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution.

At various points in their economic development, Miller says, ``different societies have decided that this shouldn't be accepted. We're now at the point where you've got to ask whether our life styles should be subsidized by the misery of very young children. ... I think the answer is, `No.'''

Miller says that worldwide ``a very broad range'' of products are produced by children. ``An awful lot'' of these products ``aren't essential to the well-being of humanity,'' he says. Children make rugs, textiles, and knitwear. They mine gold. They make laboratory beakers and stoves, and even work in a machine-gun factory.

In addition, American companies that are competitors would be permitted to sue to keep these products out.

Miller says his approach would not require creation of any additional government organization, and would be practical.

Practicality is one of the concerns of Rep. Don J. Pease (D) of Ohio, who in general supports the Miller proposal and is a cosponsor.

But he says that addressing several specifics would make the measure more viable: namely, who decides what ages constitute improper child labor, given that the figures might vary according to each country's stage of economic development? Exactly how does a US firm, or person, file a complaint against imported goods? Who judges such a case? Are there rights of appeal?

Mr. Pease says there is one other issue: ``Third-world countries are very concerned'' that proposals such as Miller's ``are thinly disguised efforts to keep their products out of our country altogether.'' Pease says that definitely is not the motivation, but the issue should be addressed in the Miller legislation.

There ``are concerns,'' Pease says cautiously, ``that I think can be met and overcome. But I think we have an obligation to work through them.''

Two and a half months ago Miller introduced his bill ``as a way to raise the issue,'' he says.

But the proposal gained more support than anticipated: It already has 83 cosponsors. Miller now thinks his proposal ``will move in the Congress, over the next year or so.''

Pease thinks he may be right. One possible tack for action, he says, is adding the measure to a future bill that deals with trade.

He says he thinks this year's trade bill is too far along on its congressional journey for such an amendment. But in another year or so, that's a real possiblity.

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