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Remarks to the Biennial Child Labor Coalition Conference

Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich


Biennial Child Labor Coalition Conference


September 9, 1996

Thank you, Pat Scarcelli, for that introduction. And thank you, Linda Golodner and Pharis Harvey, for your leadership in the battle to protect children at work.

And I want to commend every member of the Child Labor Coalition for a recent initiative that I believe has had a tremendous impact on the lives of young Americans. I'm talking about our efforts over the summer to bring down the injury and fatality rate among teenagers who work summer jobs.

In a typical summer, more than 200,000 teens are injured where they work. Seventy are killed. And why? Not because of violations. Not because of abusive conditions. But, quite frankly, because these kids are inexperienced and untrained in safety matters. These are their first jobs, after all.

So the challenge was to find a way to get teenagers, their parents and, most importantly, their summer employers to understand that (1) there is a problem with safety, and (2) that a little awareness and training can go a long way toward reducing the number of deaths and injuries among these young workers.

At the outset of this summer, the Labor Department and the Child Labor Coalition got together and set out to raise the knowledge-level regarding teen safety at the workplace. Our departmental investigators and staff distributed information to employers, schools and civic organizations. The Coalition worked hard to get information to parents of working teens. It was a great joint-effort. And we ought to be proud of what we accomplished, together.

We don't yet have the figures on teen injuries from this summer. But I'll bet you that this campaign has had a very positive effect. I'll bet you this was a safer summer for teen workers. The response from media outlets throughout the country has been tremendous. And I want to salute you for helping lead this effort to protect our young people at their summer jobs. Give yourselves a big hand.

But let us not rest on our laurels. We have much work ahead of us.

In most parts of America, our young people are now back in school. But for many millions of children throughout the world -- indeed, hundreds of millions of children -- it is just another day of work -- hard, dangerous, oppressive and abusive work, in far, far too many cases.

Just when you think you've heard the most pathetic story imaginable, along comes another one that's even worse. Children toiling in glass factories, exposed to intense furnace heat and glass shards with no protective clothing and sometimes without even a pair of shoes on their feet. Kids on sugar cane plantations wielding machetes and suffering dangerous wounds. Young girls trafficked over long distances and forced into prostitution.

It is a moral outrage, an affront to human dignity.

The scourge of abusive child labor must be eradicated from the face of the earth.

But how? How can we begin to turn this problem around and begin restoring a childhood to so many millions around the world?

The bad news is not really news to you -- and that is that there's no easy or quick solution. But the good news is that there are many things that we can do and are, in fact, doing. And the better news is that we're making some measure of progress in the fight against the scourge of child labor.

It is still true, as Justice Brandeis wrote many years ago, that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." And the only way we're going to begin to turn this problem around is by getting average people to understand its dimensions.

For instance, 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 do not want their hard-earned money going to support sweatshops in this country. They 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.

You know, many people say to me: "How can I make a difference in what products the stores carry? How can I make sure that they don't sell products made in sweatshops or by children? How can I get them to listen to me? The sales clerks don't know anything and can't do anything."

Here's what I say. When you go into the store and ask these questions the first time, the salespeople may not have the answers. But when you ask the second and third times -- and when thousands of other consumers ask as well -- there will be answers.

And the more these questions are asked, the more likely that retailers and manufacturers will want to become a part of the solution to this problem.

I know. I've seen it happen.

In this country, child labor is not nearly as serious or as awful as it is in many poor countries around the world. But we do have a sweatshop problem. We know that there are thousands of sweatshops operating within our borders. Our best estimate -- a conservative estimate -- is that over a quarter of a million people toil in sweatshops in the United States.

We're talking about people being paid less than the minimum wage and being cheated out of overtime pay. We're talking about people working for weeks and getting paid nothing at all, because their fly-by-night employer simply packed up and left and opened somewhere else. We're talking about people working in fire traps and under conditions that prevailed at the turn of the century.

And many of you know about what happened last August in El Monte, California, where more than 70 people were discovered working in virtual slavery in a garment factory -- behind barbed wire, under threat of death if they tried to leave.

Many people asked: "How could this happen in America?" But those of us engaged in the battle against sweatshops -- and that includes many of you -- had a different question: "How can we put a stop to this in America?"

When our administration came into office, we began by focusing on enforcement. But we also knew that, with only 800 inspectors to cover six million workplaces, we had to do more. So we sought to focus public attention on the problem -- to raise awareness and get consumers involved.

And you know what? The strategy is beginning to work. Due in part to tragedies like El Monte, to celebrities who became involved like Kathie Lee Gifford and to the hard work of unions like UNITE and organizations like the Child Labor Coalition, growing numbers of American consumers are recognizing that sweatshops are a problem in this country and that they have the power to do something about it.

Major garment retailers and manufacturers are getting involved, too. After participating in a Fashion Industry Forum I convened a couple of months ago, a growing number of companies are now taking steps to monitor their contractors and sub-contractors. Industry associations are getting involved in positive ways.

More recently, apparel industry leaders, consumers and unions met at the White House, with the President, to announce a partnership aimed at coming up with ways for the industry to avoid using sweatshop labor and to develop a system for reassuring consumers that the garments they buy are made under decent and humane conditions. That group has met for a second time and is well on its way.

The struggle against sweatshops in the U.S. is moving forward and making progress. But we still have much to do.

Raising public awareness has been an essential element of this success.

I know that many of you -- particularly those of you who are on the conference program -- have been working very hard to bring the scourge of child labor out of the shadows and into the spotlight, where it can be fought and defeated.

And I believe there is much progress to report on this front, too. The struggle against child labor is becoming a genuine movement. Just a few years ago, the child labor issue was barely a "blip" on the global agenda. No longer.

I join you in commemorating the courage of Iqbal Masih, and in saluting the likes of talented and dedicated young people such as Craig Kielburger, Amanda Loos, Amy Papile, Shannon Goold, and Adam and Elizabeth Carter. They have helped raise the volume and the visibility of the child labor issue. They are making people take notice. They are making a difference.

How much progress is being made? Take the soccer ball issue.

At the end of June, many of us joined together to publicize the plight of young children around the world who are spending eight to ten hours a day stitching the soccer balls that are sold in our stores.

In fact, some 80 percent of the soccer balls sold in America are produced by child labor in Pakistan. That has to stop.

Working together, we found a way to make it stop.

Every regulation soccer ball carries an official stamp from an international governing body known as FIFA, which certifies that the ball is of the proper size, weight and durability. We thought: "If the FIFA seal of approval can guarantee those things, why can't it ensure that the ball was not made by children or exploited workers?"

Well, I'm proud to say that after only a matter of weeks, FIFA has just announced that it will have such a standard, and will work to recruit the entire sporting goods industry to the cause of eliminating child labor.

So you see, there's a "cause and effect" here. And those of you who have been active in the "Foul Ball" campaign have every right to be proud of this accomplishment. You turned up the heat and you got results. It is a major step in eliminating child labor from the soccer ball industry.

And it happened because you made it happen.

I'm going to do everything I can to keep the momentum going -- to keep the ball bouncing -- and to maximize the benefits of this new FIFA child labor standard.

Today, I will be sending a letter to all of the major manufacturers and retailers of soccer balls in this country -- urging them to get with the program, to support this new standard and to ensure that it is widely observed.

Two companies, Nike and Reebok, have shown the right kind of commitment to stop the use of child labor. And I think it's time that other companies follow their example.

I have high hopes for this new soccer ball code. I believe it will join the "Rugmark" carpet-labelling initiative as a model program for combatting child labor through greater consumer awareness and greater cooperation from the industries that wish to sell their products in our markets.

Let me commend Neil Kearny of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, for the role he played in negotiating this new code of labor practice. I'd also like to thank Dan McCurry for his leadership of the "Foul Ball" Campaign here in the U.S.

There is progress on other fronts, as well.

For the past three years, the Department of Labor has been researching, investigating, and gathering data on child labor worldwide -- and making public our findings around the world. We've published two major reports, and are currently preparing a third study that will examine the codes of conduct of the major U.S. garment importers, with particular emphasis on child labor. We'll also be reporting on what some U.S. companies and non-governmental organizations are doing to eliminate the use of child labor in imported products. We expect this report to be completed next month.

We are also making progress with our international partners.

In June, at my request, the International Labor Organization held a special one-day session of the world's labor ministers and devoted it entirely to the subject of child labor. At that meeting, we agreed that the ILO's current convention child labor is simply not strong enough. So we're now in the process of drafting an entirely new convention targeted specifically at abolishing exploitative child labor -- particularly forced and bonded child labor and the sexual exploitation of children -- and toughening enforcement worldwide.

I have asked the ILO to consider the question of product labelling and to report within a year how we might use the "Rugmark" example -- and now the soccer ball example -- as models for other industries where child labor is a problem.

Labelling works. And we ought to be exploring the expansion of this strategy.

While we must do everything we can to stop subsidizing the employment of very young children, we also must act to ensure that our actions do not simply force these kids into an underground economy that treats them even more abominably. We need to be working with countries where child labor is present, building schools and ensuring that children can move from factories to the classrooms.

For example the International Labor Organization, with financial assistance from the U.S. government, is succeeding with one such program affecting the children in the garment industry in Bangladesh. This has been a complicated and difficult effort. Many of you here today have been involved in it. And you know about the particular challenges of ensuring that all Bangladeshi garment workers are afforded their basic rights. Certainly, if we can move children from factories to schools in Bangladesh, we can do it elsewhere.

We can and should do more.

The fact that child labor has been condemned and outlawed by virtually every nation on Earth makes little difference in the lives of the many millions of youngsters who are brutally exploited.

Child labor standards must be given teeth. They must be enforced in our trading system. And I assure you that our government will continue to press for the World Trade Organization to make the eradication of exploitative child labor a fundamental mission of that body. The credibility of the World Trade Organization depends on it.

Where appropriate, where we must, we will act unilaterally. For example, earlier this year, President Clinton withdrew special tariff preferences for certain products from Pakistan because of child labor violations. Our efforts have helped encourage a greater commitment by that country to eliminating child labor. And we stand ready to help Pakistan develop real, lasting solutions.

We cannot and will not tolerate the exploitation of children -- here or abroad.

Since the outset of our administration, the Labor Department has found more than 1,100 cases where children under 14 years were illegally employed here in the U.S.. We have found more than 12,000 youngsters working at jobs they are not legally allowed to perform because they are too dangerous. We find them operating power-driven meat slicers, and heavy construction or manufacturing equipment.

We know of a case where a 12-year-old Iowa boy died when the tractor he was driving overturned. And we know of another where a 13-year-old Massachusetts boy severely injured his leg while tending a power hoist on a lobster boat.

These are not the only instances where children have been hurt or killed on the job -- and where compliance with the law might have saved them.

So we will continue to enforce the law. We will continue to work with employers and parents and teachers, to educate them about the law and how to comply with it. And we will continue to work with you -- the members of the Child Labor Coalition -- and with consumers here and abroad, toward our common goal of eradicating the scourge of child labor from the face of the Earth.

This, I assure you, will be a high priority of the second Clinton Administration.

Together, we can make change happen. And, in the process, we can help make

the future a bit happier and a bit brighter for the children of the world. Our generation owes at least this much to the next.

Thank you for everything you are doing.

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