It takes time for information to reach a critical mass to produce an explosive interest in a subject. The spark that ignited massive media interest in abusive child labor came one morning this spring. Kathie Lee Gifford broke into tears on her popular morning TV show when she became aware that a line of clothing sold under her name was made in a Honduran sweatshop that included underage girls. Major media coverage followed.
On the evening of June 21 Larry King, that national indicator of "in" subjects, even had Mrs. Gifford and her husband, sportscaster Frank Gifford, on his hour-long talk show. There they they told their story in detail: how they had accidentally become converted to the cause of combating child labor and how they are purposefully seeking to make converts among other Big Name endorsers of commercial products. The Giffords reaffirmed that they will join a July 16 "summit" meeting in Arlington, Va., where wholesalers, importers, and brand-name celebrities are to discuss the subject of monitoring overseas contractors.
What next? Much more is in the wind. Read on.
Secretary of Labor Robert Reich posed that question to the world's labor ministers who met in special session June 12 during the annual conference of the International Labor Organization in Geneva. "We can and should look to adopt additional international law that may be useful to eliminate exploitative child labor," Reich said. Toward that end, he welcomed the ILO initiative to prepare an updated child labor convention, scheduled for adoption in two years.
Reich also called for an examination of the role that the new World Trade Organization could play. "Trade liberalization and the implementation of core labor standards must go hand in hand," he said. "First, because it is right, and second, because separating the two risks stalling global economic progress."
Recognizing that other international initiatives are required, Reich said: "Additionally, we should insist that international financial institutions fully integrate the child labor issue into their decisions. The World Bank and other development banks must do all they can to foster the education of children, and not their exploitation."
Reich also praised voluntary programs that label imports not made by children as free of child labor. He urged the ILO staff to produce a study on the practicality of such labeling for sectors notorious for employing underage youths.
The World Trade Organization holds a crucial Ministerial meeting of its 120 member-countries in Singapore Dec. 9-13 . It won't be easy for Reich to get support there, since most WTO participants come from financial and trade ministries. They seldom push for fair labor standards even in their own countries. But growing revulsion against the global abuse of children might embarrass and shame them into action.
Anyone with doubts about the horrors of child labor should read the
article, "Six cents an hour," by Sydney H. Schanberg in the June issue
of Life magazine. Here's an excerpt:
"Everywhere I went, first in Pakistan, then in India, I was told by the masters that children have agile hands and nimble fingers that make them specially gifted at certain tasks, such as weaving hand-loomed carpets and stitching soccer balls. But if children are so gifted, why pay them less per soccer ball than adults? And less per carpet? No, the answer is that children are sought after, and bonded, and sometimes taken in outright slavery, because they do not cost as much. As I traveled, I witnessed...children as young as six sold and resold like furniture, branded, beaten, blinded as punishment for wanting to go home, rendered speechless by the trauma of their enslavement."
The seminar will be held September 13-15 in Mulheim an der Ruhr, Germany. For details contact Irene in Tilburg, the Netherlands, by fax at (31) 13-5350 253 or e-mail at email@example.com.
Bulletin No. 8: June 22, 1996