International Trade and Child Labor

Child Rights

childlaborAll of us were children once. And as parents we want our children to grow up in a world that provides them with security, joy, and a chance to develop their potential. The idea that children should be forced into exploitative or dangerous employment or into activities that compromise their safety, their security and their dreams is one that most of us would view with horror. Gordon Brown, U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education, 2013

The United Nations (UN) estimates that over 200 million children worldwide are engaged in child labor and that nearly 70 percent of them are working in hazardous conditions. Beyond child labor, the UN reports that:

Millions of others work under horrific circumstances. They are trafficked (1.2 million), forced into debt bondage or other forms of slavery (5.7 million), forced into prostitution and/or pornography (1.8 million) or recruited as child soldiers in armed conflict (300,000).

The World Day Against Child Labor is on June 12th and is focused on eliminating child labor in every nation. Combating the problem, including in our own country, requires leadership, attention, and cooperation from governments, labor, industry and business leaders, nonprofit organizations, child advocates, and international groups.

International treaties provide mechanisms to fight child labor across the world.  For example, we must engage governments and businesses, at home and abroad, to fight all forms of child labor prohibited by the International Labor Organization (ILO). This includes pushing all nations to adopt and maintain in their laws the practices the ILO principles relating to the effective abolition of child labor, including the worst forms of child labor (Convention 182), and to adopt the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (something our own country needs to do) and the optional UNCRC protocols on children in Armed Conflict and the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

Furthermore, through the direct engagement of other nations and the push for compliance with the labor provisions in trade agreements, important progress can be made. For instance, the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) has worked on projects in over 90 nations to fight child labor and human trafficking. But, the United States can only work toward persuading other countries to make progress on child labor if we are engaged with them.

As State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says, “One of the reasons we think these partnerships are important is so we can raise the standards of everyone else on human rights at-large.”

Countries that the United States has trade agreements with are far more likely to be “significantly advanced” or are making progress when it comes to child labor. According to the Department of Labor, in its report 2013 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which analyzes how countries with trade agreements with the United States have implemented their “international commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labor”:

. . .114 out of 143 governments covered in this report made at least one meaningful effort to advance the elimination of the worst forms of child  labor. Fifty-seven governments made efforts in the areas of laws and regulations; 65 governments made efforts in the area of enforcement; 39 governments made efforts in the area of coordination; 58 countries made efforts in the area of government policies; and 77 countries made efforts in the area of social programs.

The House of Representatives is currently scheduled to take up the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and 11 other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Mexico, and there are some that argue for rejection of the TPP based, in part, on poor records with respect to child labor in some of these countries and weak enforcement of the labor provisions in trade agreements.

Critics of free trade agreements point to the fact that countries the United States has free trade agreements with still continue to produce goods with child labor and are right to be concerned, just as we are.

Therefore, it is critically important that the TPP:

  • Require each country to ban child labor and prohibit the worst forms of child labor;
  • Require each country to discourage trade in good produced by forced labor, including forced child labor, no matter where the good is produced; and,
  • Ensure that TPP countries will commit to enhancing cooperation and promoting capacity building on labor issues, including child labor.

In addition, the TPP’s provisions should be backed up by dispute settlement, including trade sanctions if a country violates the agreement. This is a critical distinction between new trade agreements like TPP and international conventions, as countries are not just promising to follow international rules. Instead, their commitments on labor, including child labor, can be enforced by withholding trade privileges with real economic consequences.

There are numerous reasons why Members of Congress should or should not support the TPP. However, to combat child labor across the world and at home, we need to use as many options as we can to make important progress for children, including trade agreements.


How trade agreements help end #childlabor: bit.ly/1ID2lt8 via @First_Focus @BruceLesley
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Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on child labor.

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