Consuming the Seeds of the Future


A farmer who eats his seed corn is headed for hard times. What hope is there for societies that put their children to work in ways that rob them of their childhood, of access to education and -- ultimately -- of hope for a better future?

Recent stories about child labor seem to come straight from some far-gone era, a meaner time when life was too brutish and short for the term childhood to have any meaning:

* Young girls who spend their days hunched over their work in match factories, where small hands make faster work.

* Boys in India sold to unscrupulous rug manufacturers who keep them as virtual slaves to feed a growing market for carpets in the United States.

* Children in poor countries around the world laboring for low wages in brick yards, mines, fields and factories, where heavy loads and dangerous tasks often leave them deformed and diseased.

Child labor is not a new problem, but it appears to be a growing one, especially in the informal, unregulated sectors of the world's economies. The U.N.'s International Labor Organization detects an alarming increase in the number of children who are working under conditions that rob them of their childhood.

When families are poor and desperate, there is a strong temptation to exploit any source of revenue, however small. And children, too young and vulnerable to fight back, are easy to exploit.

According to a recent ILO report, in some regions of the world as many as 25 percent of all children between the ages of 10 and 14 are thought to be working, many of them in illegal or dangerous conditions. These children are deprived of an education and, thus, of any real hope of improving their lot. In many cases, wages are so small that they are also deprived of any fruits of their labors.

Aside from the individual tragedies, consider the larger picture: villages, communities and even significant parts of whole countries where children -- the seeds of a better future -- are being consumed in a frantic struggle simply to get through each day.

It doesn't have to be that way. Susan Gunn, a child-labor specialist with the ILO, cites the state of Kerala in India as one place where parents have not given up on the future. There, literacy rates are high and children can be found in school, rather than in back-yard rug factories or similar small manufacturing enterprises.

These people are still poor, to be sure. But 10 or 20 years down the road, they will have an asset many other regions of India are selling out and selling short -- an adult labor force with enough basic education to support a more prosperous economy.

To be sure, children in poor countries face obstacles and hazards rarely encountered in richer countries. But child labor is not simply a Third World problem.

In one three-day sweep in March, 1990, the U.S. Department of Labor found 7,000 child-labor violations. An additional 4,000 offenses were discovered in a review of case files.

These infractions included many cases in which young people worked too many hours during the school week. But it also uncovered many teen-agers working in dangerous conditions.

Consider these stories, which Congress heard last year when Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., held hearings on the subject:

A 13-year-old boy working at a car wash had a leg ripped off by a machine. That wasn't Bangladesh or Brazil, but Laurel, Md.

A 17-year-old boy working in a Pennsylvania supermarket was killed by a machine that compresses cardboard boxes.

Another Pennsylvania boy died on the job at 15, when he was pulled into a dough-mixing machine he was trying to clean, a job he was too young to perform legally.

Americans have an almost mystical belief in the value of work, and this may account for the ease with which regulatory agencies, employers, parents and teen-agers themselves ignore child-labor laws.

In fact, however, even this country will pay a price in the future for its carelessness in refusing to draw the line between working conditions and hours that are appropriate for young people and those which put them in danger or leave them too tired to pay attention in class. Studies have shown that teen-agers who work long hours are more likely to have trouble in school or to drop out.

Comparing conditions for children in Third World sweatshops to those in American supermarkets and fast-food restaurants may seem unfair. But in the end, the distinction may be more one of degree than of difference.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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