Child labor treaty mockery of change

Yesterday, President Clinton signed the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, a document created under the auspices of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations body based in Geneva. While the convention is a good piece of political propaganda, in reality, the document will have no effect for children in the United States and the rest of the world.
The document, now signed by the United States, Malawi, and the Seychelles, commits nations to the elimination of four specific types of child labor: slavery, prostitution and/or pornography, forced military service and work that has the potential to permanently damage a child’s health. In the United States, all four types are already illegal, so the ratification and signing of the document does nothing to improve safety for U.S. children. In fact, current U.S. law goes much further in protecting the rights of children than the convention does.
The convention also suffers from little enforcement power. First of all, the document only implies a nation has duties to its own citizens, meaning that the United States is still perfectly free to import products made by abused children in other countries. It just cannot make the products here. Secondly, the convention specifies that each country must determine what constitutes work that endangers a child’s health. This provision makes it very easy for signatories to avoid making any actual changes. Finally, there is no actual enforcement mechanism. If the United States started to force children into military servitude tomorrow, the ILO could do nothing.
Ultimately, the treaty is simply a document that allows world leaders to sound concerned about child labor while avoiding taking actions to truly address the problem. A much braver and effective action for Clinton and Congress to take would be to ban all products made by individuals under the age of 16, or to force foreign companies wishing to export products to the United States to submit to monitoring of factory environments.
Some claim that the elimination of child labor would force families to starve. However, if child labor were eliminated worldwide, factories would have no choice but to pay higher wages to adult workers, since owners could no longer threaten to move to a different country.
It is no coincidence that Clinton has chosen this week to sign the convention. In the midst of a massive protest decrying the World Trade Organization’s focus on profits over basic human rights, the signing of the document makes it appear the United States is taking a stand against child labor. Sadly, even the minimal standards the convention creates could easily be struck down by the WTO’s courts, further illustrating the importance of the protesters’ concerns.
The Senate was not wrong to ratify the convention, and Clinton was not wrong to sign it. However, the U.S. government is not going nearly far enough. If the U.S. government is truly concerned with ending child labor, it must take a much stronger stand — banning all products made with child labor. Until that day, the convention is little more than pretty but empty words.