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.
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.
``In the past decade, the growth of children working has tracked closely the growth in exports,'' says Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund. A strong political and social tolerance for child labor servitude in many countries, he says, undermines efforts at reform.
Growing awareness of the connection between the push to export and the employment of minors has resulted in renewed pressure to enforce existing child- labor laws in the offending countries. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, such as the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, based in India, have long pressed for improved access to education for poor children, who often end up working as bonded laborers, and have stepped up campaigns to get children out of factories. The ILO launched its first major campaign against child labor in 1992, channeling funds for educational and technical assistance to eight countries.
Reaction to US move
But when the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced, also in 1992, a number of countries sat up and took notice. And this, say many child-rights advocates, is proof positive that the US can influence the use of child labor overseas.
Critics of attempts to ban child-made products decry such measures as protectionist and ignorant of the reality that families in many developing countries rely on a child's income. But supporters counter that the many of the industries targeted no longer exist in the US.
Also, Bill Goold, legislative director for Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California, sponsor of the House version of the bill, argues that, rather than hurting children or families who desperately need the income, a ban could assist countries in breaking long-standing cycles of poverty.
``When kids keep working, adults don't get jobs,'' says Mr. Goold. In the rug sector, he points out, there is acute adult unemployment. ``It's a false premise to say kids have to work or the family starves.''
But getting the message across isn't easy. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who introduced the bill, was pilloried in Bangladesh as well as in India, with those governments and some nongovernmental organizations lambasting the bill as imperialistic.
Nevertheless, in anticipation of foreign visits at the time, some of the larger Bangladeshi garment factories moved to comply with existing but unenforced child-labor regulations. And in addition to agreeing not to hire any more child laborers under the age of 14, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association promised that children aged 12 to 14 will move to part-time work and part-time school, while children under 12 will be sent to school full time.
Ideally, activists say, consumer pressure and legislative action combined will end reliance on child labor in certain export growth industries. They are also counting on many American consumers becoming informed about products made by children.
``I find there are a lot of people who don't know what's going on, and when I do talk with them, the reaction is sympathetic,'' Mr. Senser says. ``President Clinton just ordered a ban on imports involving rhino horn and tiger bones. What's wrong with putting something in about children?''