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United States’ Congress: Blue Print to Eliminating Child Slave Labor

by Nick Ackerman
November 2010

“It is a moral imperative that all countries act now to stop abusive child labor practices. Such practices not only are evil…but are bad economic policy and impede development goals. The U.S. Congress has taken both legislative and non-legislative actions to penalize countries that engage in the worst forms of child labor and to rehabilitate the child victims of such practices” (Harkin 2005). The United States Congress has maintained a strong belief that child slave labor is a prominent issue in today’s world. Various bills, voluntary acts, and legislations have been developed throughout the past century in order to eliminate this international injustice.

Since the early 1900s, the United States of America’s Congress created legislative initiatives to prevent the use of abusive child slave labor. Congress has developed a wide range of tools to combat the practices. One of the United States earliest attempts to squelch child slave labor was Section 1307 of the Tariff Act of 1930. This act states that all goods that are mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by forced or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions shall not be allowed to enter any of the ports under U.S. ownership as of January 1,1932. The section also gave the Secretary of Treasury authority to prescribe necessary regulations to enforce these provisions. The act was amended in 2000 to ensure that the act also applied to goods produced by forced or indentured child labor.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act for the first time in 1992 in order to prevent the importation of manufactured and mined goods produced by children under the age of 15. Senator Harkin continued to introduce the bill until he created the Child Labor Deterrence Act of 1999.This act instructs the President of the United States to work with international trading partners to secure an world wide ban on the trade of products produced by child slave labor. It also follows the policies of the first Child Labor Deterrence Act. However, the Act of 1999 requires the development and maintenance of a roster of foreign countries that use child slave labor. Companies violating the prohibition against importing these products would be subject to penalty.

The United States Congress has worked diligently in the twenty first century to eradicate child slave labor. The Trade and Development Act of 2000 was the first of many congressional actions at the turn of the century. Under the Act, countries eligible to receive trade preferences under the Generalized System of Preferences are obliged to implement commitments on abusive child slave labor. The Office of the United States Trade Representative conducts yearly investigations of eligible participants to ensure that countries implement commitments defined in the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182.

Negotiated in 1999, ILO Convention 182 sets a universal definition of the worst forms of child labor. “The term ‘child’ shall apply to all persons under the age of 18” (International Labor Confrence: Convention 182 1999). These ‘worst forms of labor for children’ are classified as armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, production and trafficking of drugs, and work that is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of ‘children’ and has practices similar to slavery such as bondage or serfdom. It also recognized that child labor is caused by poverty and that the long term solution relies on the sustenance of economic growth leading to social progress, poverty alleviation, and universal education. As of April 2005, 153 of the 178 ILO member countries, including the United States, ratified the convention thus recognizing child slave labor as an “urgent” matter and agreeing to eliminate the practice of such labor.

In 2001, Representative Eliot Engel, from the state of New York collaborated with Senator Harkin to create an initiative to eliminate child slave labor in the West African chocolate industry. They voluntarily created the Harkin-Engel Protocol which sought out to ensure that cocoa beans and products were grown and processed in a manner that complied with the International Labor Convention 182. The protocol suggested the use of a six point problem-solving; among these steps are acknowledgement of the use of child slave labor, formation of advisory groups, research to make mutual agreements to stop the injustice, and the development of standards for investigation of potential violators. The Harkin-Engel Protocol promoted the development of global industry under independent monitoring, reporting, and public certification. In response to the protocol, the chocolate industry agreed to certify that cocoa used in chocolate and related products has been grown and processed in West Africa without abusive child labor.

Through the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Tom Harkin secured funding for the West African Cocoa and Commercial Agriculture Project, also known as WACAP. This ILO program combined awareness-raising of families and communities with a child labor monitoring and feedback system to produce credible reports on child labor in West African cocoa production. WACAP program then rehabilitated child slave labor in West African cocoa fields when children were removed from abusive work and provided with education or vocational training.

In the Trade Act of 2002, Senator Tom Harkin developed a law that contains the trade promotion authority for U.S. trade negotiators to use the basis of the elimination of the worst forms child slave labor as the prime negotiating objective of the United States’ delegates. The legislation also seeks to establish consultative organizations among other nation’s delegations to avoid the worst abuses of child labor and develop standards for the protection of human rights. These organizations contain policies which consist of the creation of reviews of future trade and investment agreements which affect U.S. labor markets. “The Secretary of Labor will [then] investigates and submit a report to Congress on the labor situation and practices of any countries with which the US is negotiating a trade agreement” (Curry n.d.).

It is our duty as individuals and as a world to combat the ugly head of child slave labor. “It takes government, industry, and international organizations, all acting in concert, to implement these tools effectively” (Harkin 2005). The United States Congress has assumed the role to develop a number of effective national and international legal and voluntary tools to combat and eliminate child slave labor.

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