ATLANTA -- In Thailand, children drown or suffer ruptured eardrums working as deep-sea divers with no protective equipment. In Sri Lanka, more children die from pesticide poisoning than from a combination of childhood diseases, such as whooping cough and malaria.
In Asia alone, about a million children are working as prostitutes.
These are among the horrifying findings of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency. Last month the agency released a report showing that some 250 million children, ages 5 to 14, are employed, with about half working full-time.
The report, while unflinching in its opposition to the exploitation of children, is taking some heat from labor leaders who believe its recommendations do not go far enough to stop child labor.
That's unfair. The ILO isn't being timid; it's just being realistic about solving a very tough problem.
The agency recommends nations work together to crack down on child prostitution and slave labor, as well as the practice of allowing children to work with hazardous materials. But trying to eradicate all child labor would be too broad a goal. Indeed, it could make matters worse.
A better fate
The evidence suggests that when poor children are prohibited from earning money, their parents are more inclined to sell them into prostitution or force them out of the home. For girls, hunching over a sewing machine is still a much better fate than having to pose for a pornographer or beg in the street.
In trying to end the exploitation of children, we must not get so carried away with indignation that we become blind to the problems of the very poor. It's unfair to assume that parents in, say, Honduras, are wrong to allow their daughters to sew garments for contractors. Those Latin American parents are only doing what parents here did for generations as this country was developing.
Remember that early in this century, many families in the South had food on the table only because youths were able to work in textile mills and help with farm chores. Wouldn't it have seemed absurd to those families if a foreign country had imposed trade sanctions to force children out of the factories and fields? Americans would have seen such foreign interference as an affront, not assistance.
Today, destitute people around the world are struggling to keep their families fed and clothed. If an entire family can be better nourished because of the wages of a 14-year-old seamstress, is that immoral?
Obviously, in a perfect world, all children would spend their early years in good schools. But this world is far from perfect.
In many places, impoverished families depend on all members to contribute income. We should not arrogantly impose our Western standards on these struggling people.
At the same time, we cannot stand by while children are degraded, enslaved and forced into extremely dangerous work.
No 8-year-old, no matter how poor his family, should be forced to inhale asbestos and pesticides. No girl should be dragged into a brothel for years of sexual slavery.
The ILO report was titled: "Child Labor: Targeting the Intolerable." That seems to be the right approach.
Rather than calling for sweeping boycotts and harsh trade bans to punish any use of child labor, the U.N. agency is urging the world to draw up an international accord banning the worst offenses: slavery, prostitution and work in hazardous industries.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department agreed to allow a group of U.S. companies to develop a collective strategy for combating the exploitation of children.
Many U.S. manufacturers want to use foreign subcontractors, but they don't want to exploit children. They are trying to develop reasonable guidelines for doing business. Labor leaders and child advocates should not sabotage such efforts by demanding that the United Nations and U.S. companies set standards higher than poor countries can meet.
We must stop the harshest forms of exploitation without denying indigent children opportunities to earn income from legitimate labor.
Marilyn Geewax is a member of the Atlanta Constitution editorial board.
Pub Date: 12/06/96