The Invisible Children
02/20/00 NY Times (Editorial)- If there is a political issue that has stirred young people in America in recent years, it is the exploitation of child labor overseas. College students have organized to ensure that their university's athletic wear is not sewn by children. Elementary school classes have petitioned Disney and Nike to keep children out of their factories. Because of consumer clout and the importance of reputation to American manufacturers, child labor in their factories overseas has indeed diminished.
The problem of child labor, however, goes far beyond the tennis shoe. A quarter-billion children 14 and under work worldwide. Unicef estimates that fewer than 1 in 20 make goods for export -- and those who do are the most fortunate working children. The vast majority are employed in far more harmful occupations. Children in agriculture are poisoned by pesticides. Prostitutes get AIDS. Miners and glassworkers inhale dangerous substances. Shoe shiners and gum sellers are at the mercy of the streets. Domestic servants live in isolation and suffer beatings and sexual abuse. Millions of children in South Asia are sold by their parents into bonded labor to work off family debts. American consumers are right to insist that the goods we buy are not made by exploited children. But these efforts will backfire if children kicked out of these factories drift to more hazardous occupations.
Helping children in these dangerous jobs -- where they are isolated and invisible, and have no champions overseas -- is far more complex than keeping them out of factories. Fortunately, the Clinton administration is taking a sophisticated and constructive approach. Earlier this month the White House proposed doubling Washington's spending to fight child labor. The child labor division of the International Labor Organization, which is based in Geneva, would get $45 million next year, up from $30 million this year and only $3 million three years ago. Washington is now by far the group's largest and most influential donor. An additional $55 million would go to American programs overseas. Both efforts would attempt to provide the most effective antidote to child labor -- schooling.
The vast majority of child labor occurs in places with high levels of rural poverty and lax legal enforcement. Virtually every country bans hazardous child labor and most underage labor. In most nations, however, poor enforcement leaves children to be exploited by employers -- who often prefer to hire children because they are cheaper and more docile workers than adults. But economic development and effective law enforcement are not likely any time soon. For now, the best way to reduce child labor is to make primary education cheaper, better and more accessible.
Most children who work either have no school nearby or cannot afford to buy uniforms and textbooks and pay school fees. The education available is often so terrible that parents do not believe it worthwhile to send their children to school and forsake the few dollars a month they could earn.
The I.L.O.'s flagship program, in Bangladesh, works with the government, manufacturers and citizens' groups to establish special schools for children who worked in garment factories. Their families receive a small stipend to keep them in school. About 10,000 children have attended these new schools, and child labor in the garment industry has dropped sharply since the program began.
Much child labor would be prevented if governments emphasized basic education for all. Countries that keep children in school, like Sri Lanka, have relatively low levels of child labor. But many poor nations are actually cutting education budgets and raising school fees, in part because they have overwhelming foreign debts. They, and the nations that hold that debt, are fueling a cycle of poverty and condemning children not only to misery later, but misery now.