U.S. citizens are linked to the international problem of child labor in part through our trade relationships with other countries. It is well-documented that some of the mined, manufactured, and agricultural goods produced for export to the United States involve the use of child laborers or forced labor. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a report entitled List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor which lists 128 products from 70 countries that have been documented to involved the use of child labor or forced labor.

A few examples of goods or commodities imported to the U.S. that have been linked to child labor in recent years include:

Harvesting Bananas

Harvesting Bananas
Photo: David Parker

  • Cut flowers from Colombia
  • Coffee from Guatemala, Kenya, and other countries
  • Vanilla from Madagascar
  • Shrimp from Thailand
  • Cashews from India
  • Bananas from Ecuador

How does trade policy affect child labor?

David Parker

Photo: David Parker

Today, when U.S. leaders argue for “free trade” they are arguing that fewer “trade barriers” (tariffs, quotas, regulations, etc.) will lower the cost of moving goods from one country to another, increasing incomes and wealth for all.

But others are arguing that the wealth created by trade is not being shared equally, that trade rules aren’t always applied fairly—and that hasty removal of “trade barriers” sometimes has negative effects on workers, economies, and environments (especially in small or poor countries).

Where do labor standards fit into international trade?

David Parker

Photo: David Parker

Terms of international trade are increasingly negotiated through international trade institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO emerged out of multinational negotiations held from 1986-1994, and has since continued to negotiate rules covering trade in goods, services, agriculture, and intellectual property. As of 2003, the WTO includes appointees from 146 countries who negotiate and enforce agreements with the stated aim of helping “trade flow as freely as possible” and eliminating measures that “restrict the free market.”

WTO rules currently do not include provisions on labor standards or child labor, and at present there are no plans to consider labor standards in WTO negotiations. At its 1996 Ministerial meeting, WTO members passed a resolution stating that “the ILO should remain the supranational agency charged with developing and monitoring core labor standards.”

Child Labor in U.S. Trade Policy

Some U.S. trade legislation has included labor standards and child labor (for example, as criteria for preferential trade or for goods procured under federal contracts). However, international free trade rules may begin to prohibit certain considerations of labor standards in trade legislation. For example, when U.S. Senators proposed legislation banning imports of goods made with child labor in the early 1990’s, Congressional researchers acknowledged such a ban would likely violate current rules of the WTO, because countries affected by a child labor import ban could challenge the ban as an unfair trade barrier or impose fines on U.S. exports as a penalty for the violation.

Current U.S. trade policy (Trade Act of 2002) directs U.S. trade negotiators to:

  • “promote respect for worker rights and the rights of children consistent with core labor standards of the ILO”
  • “seek provisions in trade agreements under which parties to those agreements strive to ensure that they do not weaken or reduce the protections afforded in domestic environmental and labor laws as an encouragement for trade”
  • “promote universal ratification and full compliance with ILO Convention No. 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Labor”

Educational materials containing information on Child Labor and International Trade Issues, including Workshop Materials—International Trade and Child Labor and K-12 Teachers’ Materials, are available through this web site. These materials include Power Point presentations, instructors’ manuals, activities, and handouts. You may adapt these materials to your group’s needs.