News | June 17, 1999

Clinton Calls for the Elimination of Forced Child Labor

"Today, the time has come to build on the growing world consensus to ban the most abusive forms of child labor, to join together and to say there are some things we cannot and will not tolerate," President Bill Clinton said at the 87th session of the International Labor Conference on Wednesday in Geneva.

"Every single day, tens of millions of children work in conditions that shock the conscience," he told conference delegates, who represent members of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Clinton called for a concerted international effort to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

According to ILO estimates, about half of the world's 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 work full time, while the rest combine work and schooling. As many as 70% of these children are engaged in hazardous work. The 174 ILO members are expected to conclude the annual conference today with the adoption of the "Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention 1999." The proposed new standards were first discussed at the 1998 conference and apply to all children under the age of 18.

The new convention defines the worst forms of child labor as:

  • All forms of slavery, including the sale and trafficking of children, forced or compulsory labor, debt bondage, and serfdom.
  • The use, procurement or offering of a child for prostitution, production of pornography, or pornographic performances, or for illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs.
  • Work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of children.

The practice of using forced child labor came into the spotlight in the US several years ago, when Americans learned that companies like Nike (Beaverton, OR) and Wal-Mart (Bentonville, AR)—with their Kathie Lee Gifford apparel line—were selling goods manufactured in Third World sweatshops that had few, if any, safety and health regulations. Over the weekend, President Clinton ordered federal agencies to list products suspected of being manufactured by forced child labor. Federal contractors must certify no abusive child labor went into the manufacture of goods they buy.

Eight companies, including Nike, Liz Claiborne (New York), Patagonia (Ventura, CA), Kathy Lee Gifford, and Reebok (Stoughton, MA), have joined together to create the Fair Labor Association. They agree to monitor all factories where they make clothes and have their efforts monitored and made public. Monitors who have visited the overseas manufacturing facilities of these companies report improvements in occupational health and safety, part of which is due to fewer children working in the facilities.