A waste of human resources

IN glass factories, brickyards, quarries, and dozens of other hazardous workplaces around the world, child laborers still toil by the millions. It's hardly a new problem. International organizations were drawing up conventions to limit child labor in the years preceding World War I. Now the International Labor Organization has issued a 226-page report focused on the third world. It notes widespread violation of the internationally set standard of a minimum age of 12 or 13 for ``light work.'' Children working in Peruvian quarries, for instance, start at age 8 or younger.

One difficulty is the reluctance of many to view this situation as a problem. Aren't the developing countries just making optimum use of their most plentiful resource: human beings? The children work long hours for low pay and help local industries generate important foreign exchange. The short-term rewards, for industry at least, could seem great.

In the longer term, of course, the picture reverses. Child labor is anything but optimum use of human resources. Those resources are most profitably developed through education, through training that can turn today's youth into the inventors, educators, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. That long-term investment is crucial to the eventual elimination of the whole concept of a perpetually poor ``third'' world.

Most governments in the developing regions of the world appreciate this. Most have laws restricting child labor. But enforcement, especially at the local and provincial levels, lags.

Interested parties outside the countries involved have a role in bringing the pressure of world opinion to bear on this problem. Lawmakers in the United States have even proposed measures tying compliance with child labor standards to foreign aid and to acceptance of imports. That kind of forceful nudge might be useful in some instances, but it also might create a backlash against American ``bullying.''

A convincing case can be made against the employment of children in industry. But making it requires patience and persistence. Each human being has a right to his or her opportunity to develop into a productive member of society. Measured against that right, the practice of binding children to back-breaking work is indefensible.

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