ILRF Files Trade Complaint Seeking Import Ban on Carpets Made with Child Labor

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Date of publication: November 5, 1997

The International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) applauds Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Bernie Sanders for their determined effort to end the exploitive use of child labor in the global economy. Senator Harkin's leadership on the issue has resulted in the Congressionally-mandated research studies on child labor conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, which provide in great detail the harsh realities of the present global economy. Representative Sanders is, of course, the author of the Sanders Amendment to the Tariff Act of 1930, which clarified that section 307's import ban applies to "forced or indentured child labor."

The first effort to implement the Sanders Amendment, the ILRF Complaint targets the South Asian carpet sector, notorious for its use of child labor. The ILRF is seeking a complete ban on imports of South Asian carpets unless the importer can prove, with credible and independent verification, that his or her carpets were not made with child labor. The complaint, addressed to the U.S. Commissioner of Customs, will be available at the November 5th Press Conference.

President Clinton and his Republican allies are working frantically to pass Fast Track legislation giving the President the authority to negotiate new trade agreements without any binding provision for labor and environmental issues. Fortunately, responsible members of Congress, like Senator Harkin and Representative Sanders, are striving to ensure that the voices of exploited workers, especially children, are heard in the debate over the future of trade. President Clinton's empty rhetoric about "looking forward" and "leading on trade" belie the reality that without adequate labor provisions in trade agreements, we will continue the giant slide backwards towards sweatshop conditions that were made illegal in the U.S. over 60 years ago. Manufacturing workers in the U.S. are being replaced by children and young adults in places like Indonesia and Pakistan working under conditions that would shock Charles Dickens.

"The future we hope to see is one where the rights of child workers are taken as seriously in global trading rules as the right of Microsoft to have its software copyrights protected from pirating," says ILRF Executive Director Pharis Harvey. "'Protectionist' is the nasty epitaph hurled at advocates for worker rights, while the President's corporate supporters are deemed to be visionaries of the free trade future for pursuing trade agreements that protect property rights with hundreds of pages of rules, leaving only worker rights and environmental issues to be dealt with by the so-called 'free market.'"

Trade is not an end in itself. The preamble to the original General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) signed in 1947 stated: "Relations among countries in the field of trade and economic endeavor should be conducted with a view to raising standards of living and ensuring full employment." This noble goal has been literally sold out by the Clinton Administration.

The Sanders Amendment is a major first step in social legislation for the global economy, leading towards a future with trade rules that protect property and people. According to the International Labor Organization, more than 250 million children are working in the world today. Putting an end to the massive use of exploitive child labor should be the global trading system's highest priority, and is a necessary prerequisite to any credible claim that expanding trade for multinational companies leads to economic progress for the working poor. Through the leadership of Representative Bernie Sanders and Senator Tom Harkin, the new child labor legislation will ensure that those who practice the most exploitive forms of child labor do not have the privilege of access to the U.S. market. It also provides activists with a powerful tool in negotiating with industries that use child labor to develop programs that shift children from factories to schools.

"Since there is no hand-knotted carpet industry in the U.S. to 'protect,' the ILRF hopes that this complaint will demonstrate the great potential for using trade sanctions to achieve social progress without raising the baseless assertions that such tools are disguised 'protectionism,'" Harvey offered. "This is not about stopping the importation of carpets; It's about requiring minimum rules to be observed in the production process. Child labor should not be used, and adult carpet workers must be paid enough to allow their children to attend school. If the global trading system cannot even offer workers that absolute bare minimum without offending the free traders, we have the right to demand a clear assurance as to when and how workers making luxurious and expensive carpets can expect to enjoy the benefits of 'trickle down' economics," Harvey explained.

The ILRF brings the first compliant to be filed under the Sanders provision with the goal of making significant progress in dealing with the growing use of child labor in manufacturing. "Based on the case law and implementing regulations, the ILRF's call for a total ban on carpets from South Asia is supported solidly by existing law," asserts ILRF General Counsel Terry Collingsworth. "We look forward to working with U.S. Customs, as well as the Departments of State and Labor, in pursuing the issues on an expedited basis," he added.