Clinton’s baby step for mankind

Child Labour

A couple of weeks ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced an agreement with clothing manufacturers to protect children around the world from exploitation in sweatshops. He called it « a historic step.’’

The agreement is with Nike, Reebok, Kathy Lee Gifford, Liz Clairborne, L. L. Bean, Patagonia, Phillips-Van Heusen, and Nicole Miller, all companies that market their products here. It prohibits hiring children to make their clothing who are younger than 15 years old, except in countries where it is legal to employ children who are 14 years old.  It also limits a child’s work week to 60 hours, and requires that at least the minimum wage be paid. The minimum wage is often less than 65 cents a day.

I suppose it’s fair enough to call the agreement « historic,’’ although it only goes a short step beyond what the British legislated 164 years ago.

Like the U.S. agreement, the British Factory Act, passed in 1834, limited the work week of adolescents to 12 hours a day, but it set the age limit a year lower, saying that the restriction applied to children 13 to 18 years old.

The debate in England over regulating child labour was intense. Manufacturers claimed they would no longer be competitive if their ability to employ children were restricted.

Here in Canada, Craig Kielburger, the Thornhill boy who is campaigning world wide against child labour, is bringing home appalling stories of child exploitation. In the light of his reports, it’s instructive to listen to similar accounts from the eighteen thirties. Not much has changed in large parts of the world.

In 1832 the British House of Commons established a select committee which heard testimony from men who had worked as children in woollen mills.

One was Matthew Crabtree, who described how children in a blanket factory had to keep up with machines that were turning out « a regular quantity of cardings … and therefore, however humane the (supervisor) may be, he must keep (the children) up with the machine or be found fault with…. That which he commonly resorts to is to strap them when they become drowsy.’’

Another witness was Peter Smart, a child labourer who became a supervisor in a factory producing yarn when he was 17 years old. He testified that children slept in a factory bunkhouse and some mornings, « (The children) have been brought to such condition that I have gone and fetched up the doctor to them to see what was the matter…. They were not at all able to rise. We have had great difficulty in getting them up.’’

« When that was the case,’’ he was asked, « how long had they been in bed, generally speaking?’’

« Perhaps not above four or five hours.’’

In those days, the factories of British manufacturers were on home soil. Nowadays, manufacturers often locate their plants abroad, in countries where they can exploit poverty. However, as President Clinton has demonstrated, companies can still be made to answer to their home governments.

Invariably it has been poverty that has kept factories supplied with children. And it’s poverty that’s at the root of many of the worrisome environmental trends we’re witnessing today — even population growth.

I often hear people say that population growth is the single greatest threat to sustainability. And indeed it is an enormous threat. But it’s not the greatest. Poverty is.

End poverty and birth rates drop. A decent standard of living is still the most effective birth control measure there is.

The issue of poverty wasn’t addressed in the U.S. agreement. So, the net effect of the agreement was to improve a bit on the legislation passed by the British 164 years ago, and to ignore the root cause of both child labour and environmental calamities such as deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

The agreement may be « historic.’’ But it’s also disappointing. As pointed out by Michael Posner, executive director of the U.S. organization Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, « The reality is, minimum wages are generally not high enough.

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