WOULD YOU buy a rug if you knew that it had been woven in India by 10-year-olds beaten if they didn't work fast enough? Would you wear a shirt if it had been sewn by a 9-year-old locked into a factory in Bangladesh until production quotas for the day had been met? Would you eat sardines if the cans had been filled by 12-year-old Filipino children sold into bonded servitude?
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, is the most sweeping free-trade pact in history. But like many agreements among different nations with different agendas, much has been lost in the translation. One of the losses in the GATT negotiations was the right of children not to be exploited, overworked and underpaid as a source of cheap and compliant labor around the world.
From the children who make carpets in India, sometimes 16 hours a day, seven days a week, to those who sew in Bangladesh for as little as five cents an hour, the International Labor Organization estimates that there may be as many as 200 JTC million child laborers worldwide. Some are working in sweatshops that contract to make American goods. In testimony before the Senate earlier this year, a 15-year-old from Honduras told of girls working up to 80 hours a week at a factory manufacturing Liz Claiborne sweaters.
Child labor is the dirty little secret of foreign imports. Sen. Tom Harkin, who wants to outlaw U.S. imports of all products made by children under age 15, says the problem is that Americans don't know that some of what they buy, including toys for their own kids, has been manufactured by children working the kind of hours, under the kind of conditions, that many still associate with the darkest days of the Industrial Revolution.
"You give me any cross-section of 100 Americans," says the Iowa Democrat, "people from any income level, any area of the country, and I think the reaction would be overwhelmingly against buying the products."
Mr. Harkin is a voice crying in the wilderness, and the wilderness is the gilded thicket of free trade, thorny with U.S. concessions. Mr. Harkin's bill to keep products made with child labor out of the United States would probably be a violation of GATT, which provides only for those restrictions spelled out in the trade pact.
During various GATT negotiations, developing countries successfully argued against child labor provisions, insisting that children have always worked in their cultures, that to try to interfere with child labor is protectionist and punitive when a child may be the only wage-earner in a desperately poor family.
But the tradition of children helping on small farms and the innovation of locking them into a hotbox of a factory for 14 hours a day are worlds apart. In parts of some countries, some children have jobs while their parents don't because adult workers have been laid off in favor of children, who are infinitely more exploitable and provide bigger profits for prosperous factory owners. And nations that really want to compete in a global economy will educate their kids, not work them half to death before they've even reached puberty.
After the bad publicity of the Senate hearings, Liz Claiborne announced that it was ditching the Honduran contractor, then decided instead it would "work with the facility" to "meet our human rights standards." A few American companies have been ahead of the curve; Levi Strauss and Reebok, for instance, had already demanded that their contractors overseas hire only workers over age 14.
In India a consortium of carpet makers has started an industry campaign that tags those products made without child labor. That's the least Americans deserve, some assurance that what they buy has not been manufactured by kids.
Amid attempts to protect elephants from ivory poachers and dolphins from tuna nets, the rights of children go remarkably unremarked. "This is the last vestige of slavery sanctioned in the world today," said Mr. Harkin.
If GATT passes, an opportunity to end these children's servitude will have been shunted aside for the alleged bonanza of free trade. But consumers can vote with their credit cards only if products are labeled. At the very least the slogan "Not Manufactured with Child Labor" should shame those companies not in a position to affix it to their products.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.