Image, as we know, is everything in the cutthroat world of sports advertising. But could it be that the image of a child at work in Pakistan, his fingers crippled from stitching soccer balls, has more power than the advertiser's dream of the young Western athlete striving for excellence?
Earlier this year some of the world's largest sporting-goods firms pondered that question at their industry's annual convention in Atlanta. They decided that the time may have come to draw up a common code that would rule out subcontracting to producers who employ children.
While still tentative, this was an unusual initiative by companies whose competitiveness is legendary. The venue was also appropriate, because the International Olympic Committee is deeply worried that the Atlanta Games could be marred by disclosures about sports equipment made by toiling children.
They could well be right. Ask the well-known American talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford, who has been deeply embarrassed by charges that her brand of clothing is buying from sweatshops in Central America that hired children.
Suddenly, it seems, child labor has the power to unsettle television celebrities and multinational firms, as well as overshadow the Olympic Games. Why? Because child labor exposes the seamy side of free trade and unfettered capitalism. In an age of unprecedented deregulation, this makes it one of the most explosive items on the international agenda.
The tensions have been building for some time. Western trade unions are confident that they can use child labor as a way of forcing governments to respect labor rights or face trade sanctions. Last year, they fired the opening shot with a complaint against Pakistan under Europe's new and revised Generalized Scheme of Preferences.
But third-world governments reject such pressure as protectionism. Its real aim, they suggest, is to raise their production costs and make their exports less competitive.
This skirmish could escalate into a trade war if it is not nipped in the bud. More important, it obscures the very real threat to working children. According to the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO), 78 million children under the age of 14 were working worldwide in 1990.
Forces of exploitation
We can be sure that abuses in export industries are increasing as foreign firms seek out the cheapest labor in an integrated global economy, and that bonded labor (in which children are sold to pay off debts) is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent.
In spite of this, there is extraordinarily little international leadership on the issue. One ILO convention (No. 138) sets a minimum age of 14 for work in developing countries. But this has only been ratified by 46 governments and it does not apply in the informal sector, where abuses against children are rampant. The ILO's governing body has decided that a new convention is needed to target particularly dangerous practices, like bonded labor. The problem is that these are already outlawed in most countries. What is needed is not more laws but the will to enforce them.
The basic dilemma is that child labor is a fact of life throughout much of the third world. Children work to supplement the family income, and many poor communities cannot afford the alternative of decent, affordable education. But the pressure can come from opportunity as well as poverty. A recent World Bank report on Vietnam found that the enrollment of boys in secondary schools is falling as they take advantage of a growing economy.
All this makes international agencies like the ILO and UNICEF unsure whether to push for an outright ban on child labor, or only to work toward its eventual elimination.
How can these agencies impose their authority on such an emotive, complex issue? First, by dispelling the dangerous myth that child labor is a worthwhile investment. One ILO survey of 300 carpet firms in India makes a start by refuting what it calls the "nimble fingers" argument - the notion that the size, agility, and subservience of children make them better at weaving carpets. In fact, says the study, adults may even be more proficient at tying the required knots. Moreover, the money saved by employing children amounts to less than 3 percent of a carpet's retail price.
An economic dead end
Even if the economic gains were greater, the lesson from Asia's economic giants, like South Korea, is that education counts for more than labor in making an economy competitive. Over-reliance on cheap labor condemns an economy to producing labor-intensive goods, and discourages investment in new technology. The blunt fact is that exploiting children perpetuates poverty.
Once understood, this should give governments an incentive to boost investment in education, which is the best way of drawing children away from exploitative work. These governments might also appreciate the economic argument for respecting other "core" labor rights.
But if Western governments really want the third world to cooperate, these rights will have to include freedom from discrimination and freedom of association, which are under threat in the West, as well as the more emotive abuses like child labor to which developing countries are most vulnerable. In addition, these rights must also be endorsed by consensus, and at the international level. Otherwise governments will cry foul at what they see as selective threats.
The best - indeed the only - forum for achieving this is the ILO. But the ILO is held in low esteem in the West. Britain last year threatened to withdraw from the ILO because the agency has complained that unions are not recognized at a British security establishment near the town of Cheltenham. The US has yet to ratify the ILO's human-rights conventions, with the exception of forced labor. This knee-jerk contempt of UN agencies has to change if children are to be better protected.
Otherwise some of our favorite firms could be in for a rocky ride at the hands of irate consumer groups. These firms have to accept the responsibility that comes with their enormous economic power, and that means drawing up strict codes of conduct and accepting regular monitoring of their subcontractors.
It is very much in their own interest. The time may be coming when discriminating consumers seek out products that were made without exploiting children, even if it means paying more. Utopian? Not really. Chemical-free foods and dolphin-free tuna have proved to be profitable. Why not goods made with child-free labor? The sporting giants at least are starting to ask the right questions. Having picked up the torch at Atlanta, they will hopefully run with it.
*Iain Guest is a senior fellow at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace.