Leaving Child Laborers Behind


"Leave No Child Behind," is the slogan the Bush Administration has attached to some of its more "compassionate" initiatives. But in seeking to sharply cut U.S. support for international efforts to combat child labor, the Administration is leaving millions of the world's most vulnerable children -- in impoverished countries, spending their days working in plantations, factories and mines rather than at play or in school -- by the side of the road.

One of the Clinton Administration's little-known legacies was a significant increase in support for efforts to fight child labor worldwide. Under its watch, the International Labor Organization (ILO) negotiated a global Convention banning the worst forms of child labor. And American contributions to international labor activities rose sharply -- most recently, from $70 million in Fiscal Year 2000 to $148 million this year, with most of the increase going to support ILO programs fighting child labor around the world.

These programs, affecting child labor practices in more than fifty countries, range fromefforts to fight child-trafficking in West Africa, to initiatives aimed at elimination of child labor in the footwear and fishing industries of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and the fireworks industries of El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States is now the world's largest single contributor to this cause, and a closer look suggests such support can be remarkably successful.

To take one example, the ILO's monitoring program in Bangladesh appears to have essentially eliminated child labor in Bangladesh's multi-billion dollar export garment industry. When monitoring of individual factories began in 1995, at least one in eight (and independent estimates suggest as many as half) of the plants producing clothes for export may have been using child labor. Today, virtually none do so.

One would think a record like this would be a cause for pride and strengthened commitment. And indeed, the Bush Administration's rhetoric suggests just that. As recently as two weeks ago, as part of its campaign to obtain Trade Promotional Authority from Congress, the Administration promised to further "strengthen and raise the profile" of the ILO in fighting child
labor and other labor abuses overseas. But in practice, the Administration seems to have concluded that we are doing too much.

With little explanation, the White House's Office of Management and Budget and the newteam at the Labor Department have sent Congress a budget proposing to cut support for international labor activities by more than half, to $72 million next year. As these funds support ILO activities over a period of years, such a cut would be felt in practical terms throughout the ILO's child labor programs for much of the next decade.

This action is sad in itself; and because it so blatantly contradicts the Administration's commitment to dealing with child labor through the ILO, it also deeply undercuts the trade agenda President Bush has made central to his Presidency.

Fortunately, of course, the budget numbers can change. Certainly Congress can and should restore the money if necessary. But if the Bush Administration is willing to swallow its pride, it could do the right thing and help the prospects for its trade program by admitting its mistake and reversing the cut. All that is necessary is for the budget train to stop, back up a bit, and let the children get on board.