Child labor in the overseas garment industry is showing signs of slackening. And American retailers are making efforts to police themselves, the Labor Department reported this week.
"There is now a permanent understanding that child labor is not an acceptable condition," says Labor Department official Andrew Samet. "But we continue to think most companies can do a lot better."
A study, conducted by the Labor Department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs, interviewed workers, community activists, government officials, and plant managers in six foreign countries that represent 20 percent of apparel exports to the US.
The Labor Department also surveyed 45 apparel retailers and manufacturers in the US, including Fruit of the Loom, The Gap, J.C. Penney, Liz Claiborne, and Nike, to identify how many of them have drafted and enforce guidelines prohibiting child labor for the goods they import. Thirty-six of those said they had policies prohibiting child labor. But many such policies are not enforced, the study reported.
In the four Central American countries that were monitored - the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras - researchers found child labor on the decline from two years ago, when it was identified as a problem there.
But in India and the Philippines, children continue to work, the report shows. Foreign suppliers that deal directly with US companies are more likely to curb child-labor abuses. In Asia, however, many children sew for subcontractors from their homes, where there is no US contact. A recent Human Rights Watch Asia study estimated that some 115 million children work in India alone.
Fighting child labor and "sweatshop" working conditions has been a top priority of the Labor Department over the past two years. The public has also grown more aware and intolerant of inhumane conditions in the workplace, as was shown this spring, when TV-show host Kathie Lee Gifford was heavily criticized for sponsoring clothing made in Honduras.
On Tuesday, 36 religious groups said they have volunteered to help combat the problem.
The Labor Department emphasizes that the progress documented in the report shows public pressure can bring about change within an industry.
The report urged all players in the apparel industry - from manufacturers to buying agents - to adopt "codes of conduct" outlawing child labor and sweatshop working conditions. It also recommended that garment importers work together to standardize a conduct code and monitor their subcontractors more tightly.