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OSEC Congressional Testimony

Testimony of Robert B. Reich, before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, [7/15/96]

Mr. Chairman, Congressman Lantos, members of the Subcommittee, I am delighted to be with you this afternoon to discuss the further steps we can take together to stop abusive and exploitative child labor.

At the outset, let me say that I believe we have made an important start in directing international attention to the truly desperate circumstances faced by hundreds of millions of children worldwide.

Just a few years ago, the issue of child labor was barely a "blip" on the global agenda. No longer. Working together, the Administration and Congress have played a major role in bringing international child labor out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where it can be fought and defeated. Today -- with governments, corporations, consumers and workers focused on this human tragedy -- we have a chance to make significant and sustained progress in reducing child labor throughout the world.

We must not let this opportunity pass by without making the most of it.

Polls show that the American people -- by an overwhelming margin -- do not want to subsidize abusive and inhumane working conditions with their consumer purchases. They don't want their hard-earned money going to support sweatshops. And they certainly don't want young children kept out of school and exploited in order to make the products that are sold in the stores where they shop.

But consumers cannot solve this problem on their own. The key to fighting this problem lies in the productive partnership we are now endeavoring to create -- a partnership between consumers, workers, businesses and governments -- a partnership aimed at making child labor unprofitable and impractical.

As you know, the garment industry is one that, both globally and domestically, is rife with sweatshop conditions. Tomorrow, in an effort to further develop an effective partnership to address these problems, the Department of Labor is hosting a Fashion Industry Forum. We are bringing industry executives, employees, consumers and government officials into the same room for what I hope will be a frank discussion of the problems and their possible solutions.

We'll talk about the manufacturers and retailers that are doing the right thing and being good corporate citizens by ensuring that their contractors and sub-contractors are complying with U.S. labor laws and, for imported goods, are adhering to basic, internationally-recognized standards. We'll talk about helping consumers get the information they need to avoid purchasing items made in violation of those standards. And we'll talk about the possibility of a labeling program for garments, perhaps like the current "Rugmark" system that certifies hand-knotted carpets as produced under humane conditions and without child labor. We believe labeling programs can be a complement to our open trade policies.

I fully expect that these talks will lead to action. This partnership has great potential, and I look forward to reporting our progress to you at a later date.

Before going any further, let me say what our battle against child labor is not.

It is not an effort to impose our own laws, standards or values on other nations. It is not an attempt to ensure that no child should ever do any work. Obviously, some types of work are fully consistent with the positive development of children.

Rather, we are talking about enforcing the international standards that have been subscribed to by virtually every nation in the world -- standards that say exploitative child labor is not an acceptable solution to poverty, and that all nations should pursue policies designed to effectively abolish it.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 100 million children -- and perhaps hundreds of millions -- who are employed full-time or nearly full-time, worldwide. Many of them are working under the most brutal conditions. They are part and parcel of an economic system that depends on their exploitation. And in many cases, very little is being done to address the problem.

Certainly, we can begin by focusing on the world's youngest workers, those that are being forced to work and those that are working under the most inhumane conditions. I'm talking about children working in glass factories who are exposed to high heat and broken glass with no protective clothing -- and sometimes without even shoes on their feet. I'm talking about young girls trafficked over long distances and forced into prostitution. I'm talking about children working on sugar cane plantations who wield machetes and often suffer debilitating wounds.

Many countries have endorsed international standards which say that children this young should not be working, and that every country should take steps to ensure that they are not. Sure enough, virtually every nation has laws prohibiting this from happening. But passing laws and enforcing laws are all-too-often separate matters.

We know that from our own experience here in this country. We have only about 800 federal inspectors to enforce all the wage and hour laws in more than six million workplaces. Even when you add in state inspectors, the total is only about 1,500. Is it any wonder that sweatshops are making a comeback in the United States? Is it any wonder that we could find slavery existing behind barbed wire at a garment factory -- as we did last year in El Monte, California?

We know that without an effective deterrent against those employers who would take the low road, the problem of child labor will remain and could even grow. Yet, many nations that have child labor laws lack an appropriate professional labor law inspectorate who can hold the law breakers accountable.

So what can we do?

In addition to our Fashion Industry Forum that I mentioned earlier, we are moving forward with a number of specific initiatives.

First, we are continuing our efforts to research the problem of child labor and publish reports. Our first two reports, By The Sweat and Toil of Children, volumes I and II, published in 1994 and 1995, collected information that had never been collected before. We documented the manufacturing, mining, agricultural and fisheries industries where children are found working in conditions that violate international standards. And although there are other organizations that publish some of this type of information, publications coming from the U.S. government still have a unique international impact. We are now at work on a third study looking at the practices of U.S. garment importers with regard to child labor, and the standards they place on their contractors and subcontractors in foreign countries to avoid the use of child labor.

These reports were produced by the Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs -- ILAB. At this point, I must advise the Subcommittee that the Appropriations bill for the Department of Labor for FY 1997 passed by the House, contains a 40 percent cut for ILAB. This comes on top of a 25 percent cut imposed in the current fiscal year. ILAB could not sustain a 40 percent cut, and would be forced to eliminate child labor activities, and other work related to the objectives of the Administration in this area. Given the proposed cuts, the public could well lose the expertise and information that ILAB has acquired on child labor issues.

A second thing we can do is to continue to support the ILO's International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor -- IPEC. I am delighted that Congress has approved these contributions -- $2.1 million for FY 1995 and $1.5 million for FY 1996. This money has gone toward funding projects like one in Bangladesh that is moving 11,000 children out of garment factories and into schools.

Through IPEC, we have also funded projects in Thailand to help girls at risk of being forced into prostitution; a program in Brazil to help children in the footwear industry; a program in the Philippines to complete a national statistical survey of child labor, and a program in Africa to help children working in plantation agriculture.

A third thing we have been doing is pressing the child labor issue at the International Labor Organization. Last month, I attended the annual ministerial meeting of the ILO in Geneva where the focus of our discussions was child labor. As a result of my request to the Director General of the ILO, a special one-day session of labor ministers was held to discuss additional approaches that could be taken to reduce exploitative child labor.

One result is a proposal to draft a new ILO convention targeted specifically at the abolition of exploitative child labor. It is the ILO, after all, that has established the international child labor standards. Since 1919, the ILO has adopted various child labor conventions, which, in the early 1970s, were consolidated into ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age for employment.

However, there is a view that ILO Convention 138 does not provide sufficient focus on the need to immediately abolish the most abusive and exploitative forms of child labor, including forced and bonded child labor, and the sexual exploitation of children. Thus, we agreed to work towards a new convention by 1999 that would give added emphasis and, added enforcement provisions, to eliminating the most abusive forms of child labor.

Fourth, while we are working on a new child labor convention, we should also be looking at whether we could expedite consideration for the United States' own ratification of the existing ILO conventions on child labor and forced labor. Our position internationally will be enhanced by our ratification of additional ILO conventions. Since 1988, we have made significant progress in ratifying ILO conventions, on a fully cooperative basis with our employer and worker representatives in the ILO, and with bipartisan support in the Senate. We would like to make more progress.

Fifth, I have raised the child labor issue in a number of bilateral discussions I have had with other labor ministers, and I will continue to make sure it is prominent in our international agenda. I believe our efforts have contributed to decisions by a number of leaders in countries where child labor remains a problem to make public commitments to seek improvements. For example, former Prime Minister Rao of India, Prime Minister Bhutto of Pakistan and President Cardoso of Brazil, nations with significant child labor problems, have all made public statements acknowledging the need for change in those countries. Many nations are moving from denial to a search for solutions.

Sixth, we continue to encourage initiatives by private industry to eliminate child labor exploitation. These can include efforts by importers to work with exporters to ensure that products are not made with child labor, and voluntary labeling initiatives by producers that help consumers make informed purchasing decisions. An example is the "Rugmark" program originally launched in India in the hand-woven carpet industry, which has some of the most exploitative child labor practices in the world. Some child labor activists in India, with the help of the German government, got together and established this program, which is being launched in Nepal also. Today, most of those child labor-free rugs are going to Europe, but it is important that U.S. rug importers also support such an effort.

Together with Chairman Smith, and some other members of Congress, we also launched an effort on June 28 to get child labor out of the soccer ball industry, where today perhaps a quarter of the labor force is under 15. These children hand-stitch leather soccer balls, in unhealthy conditions. A large portion of the industry is located in Pakistan, and we asked that U.S. importers take steps to move those children out of the industry and into schools. Two U.S. companies, Reebok and Nike, have said they are taking the steps to do just that. We also asked that FIFA, the international body that certifies soccer balls meet league standards, also require that child labor not be used in the production of those balls. Hopefully, very soon we will be able to announce that child labor-free soccer balls are available to consumers. Soccer balls are also produced in China and Indonesia and we need more information on whether child labor is a problem in the soccer ball industry in those countries.

At the recent ILO meetings, I also asked that the ILO consider the question of labeling, and make a report within one year on how we might use the Rugmark example and apply it to other sectors where child labor is a problem.

Seventh, we are also pressing for the establishment of a working party on trade and labor standards in the World Trade Organization. It is our view, and we are making progress with governments around the world, that the WTO has a responsibility to consider what steps can be taken by that institution to discourage child labor.

Eighth, we need to make sure that we use provisions of U.S. trade law -- such as Generalized System of Preferences -- that are designed to ensure that beneficiaries respect internationally recognized worker rights, including a minimum age for the employment of children. Such programs should not reward child labor exploitation. Although the GSP program is still awaiting renewal, the Administration has announced that due to child labor violations certain products from Pakistan -- surgical instruments, sporting goods and carpets -- will not be eligible to receive GSP tariff preferences.

Ninth, although we prefer to encourage other countries and employers to move children out of work and into school, and avoid trade measures, we will continue to work with members of Congress interested in pursuing legislation on this issue.

Tenth, and this is essential, we need to make sure that we are doing our best to enforce our labor laws at home. We continue to have sweatshops in the garment industry that seriously violate our wage and hour laws. If we are to be credible internationally, we must be effective at home. Domestic enforcement and international enforcement are two sides of the same coin in a global economy.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me congratulate you and this Subcommittee for your continued concern about the unacceptable exploitation of children. Let me again thank you for the support you have given our efforts, and let me express our commitment to work with you and this Subcommittee and the Congress to take every possible step to wipe out the scourge of abusive child labor.

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