The Colby Reader  

Pharis J. Harvey is a founder of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and its executive director since 1990. He is the author of Trading Away the Future: Child Labor in Indiaís Export Industries and editor of several studies of labor and peoplesí movements in Asia. In 1996 Harvey received the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for lifetime achievement in developing labor rights law and defending labor rights internationally. The ILRF maintains that internationally recognized rights are violated in every part of the globe when women work in sweatshop garment factories, children work in poor conditions making products that are shipped to developed countries and men are forced to labor without pay.

PAR: You have long been at the forefront of the movement to end child labor and to create fair work environments for workers all over the world. What initially led you to take up these causes and make it your lifeís work?

Harvey: I first became aware of the abuses of human rights of workers in Korea during the 1970ís, where it was apparent that much of the reason for repression by the Park regime was due to a desire to control labor for the sake of offering foreign investors cheap and docile labor. The more I studied human rights, the more I came to believe that without efforts to lift standards globally, the competitive nature of the global economy would drive standards down everywhere. Child labor, especially in the export sectors, is the extreme example of this pressure. But as I looked at child labor in a more holistic way, I came to recognize the need for a multiple-pronged approach that provides better alternatives for the families of the very poor who send their children to work, and for the children themselves. Illiteracy, damaged health and shortened work lives of child laborers are the source for the next generation of child laborers, leading to the recycling of poverty from one generation to the next. So I came to support a broad approach to child labor, especially in countries where abject poverty is the basic fact of life for most children

and their families.

PAR: What are the main objectives of your organization, the International Labor Rights Fund?

Harvey: ILRF concentrates its work on finding new means to enforce international labor standards, particularly in the developing world. We work to develop legislation and file lawsuits against companies that violate standards, e.g. our current lawsuit against the UNOCAL Corporation for using forced labor in Burma to build a pipeline in partnership with the military regime there. We support efforts to end child labor and to educate governments, consumers and NGOs, and trade unions, about child labor conditions and effective means to combat them. We work to strengthen organizations in communities where factories are making products for the U.S. market, so that they can contribute to efforts to improve working conditions in those factories through the use of consumer pressure. We support creative efforts such as the Rugmark Foundation, which certifies hand-knotted carpets from South Asia as made without abusive child labor and provides development and educational assistance to children in the carpet belt. (For more information, look at our website: www.laborrights.org.)

PAR: What do you see as the most effective way of addressing the problem of child labor?

Harvey: There is no single way that can be effective. An effective campaign must include pressure on governments to enforce their anti-child labor laws, equal pressure on governments to provide education and development assistance for children in child labor prone areas, education for families about why sending their children away to work is harmful to their children, and the importance of education and education of consumers to insist that child labor not be exploited in the making of products they buy. A secondary, but equally important, arena is influencing international development agencies to shift their project priorities to provide basic educational assistance, technical assistance to upgrade industries that are child labor-prone, and to guard against development projects that

themselves use or allow child labor.

PAR: Some, including Dr. Bhagwati, have noted that economic sanctions would do more harm than good. How would you respond to these assertions? Are measures such as the bill that Senator Harkin sponsored the most effective of all policies available?

Harvey: If it were not for the Harkin bill, the governments of India, Pakistan, Nepal and other countries with rampant and abusive child labor problems would still be denying that there is a problem. The threat of economic sanctions has been the most effective tool for waking governments up to confront a problem that economic sanctions themselves cannot solve. Dr. Baghwati fails to acknowledge the level of denial and lethargy in the bureaucracies of India which cannot be combated without measures that challenge their resistance to change. Dr. Baghwati is correct, however, that economic sanctions by themselves are not a solution, and can cause more harm if they only result in disemploying children without their being given more favorable alternatives. But as a part of a policy package they have proved remarkably effective in STARTING reforms.

PAR: Has the United States, in your view, done enough to try to reduce the prevalence of child labor? Is this problem something that should be tackled by international organizations, for example the UN?

Harvey: The US under the current administration, has increased vastly its work on international child labor, mainly through two means: support for the work of the International Labor Organizationís International Program to Eliminate Child Labor, and through restrictions on import or government procurement of products made by child labor. Domestically the Clinton Administration has increased funding for labor inspectors looking for hidden child labor and for research into the effects of various farm chemicals on children working in the fields. But there is much more to do. U.S. labor law makes it very difficult for farm workers to organize to secure higher wages, and this is the basic cause of child labor in farm worker families. The educational opportunities for migrant laborersí children are often very poor, because of their frequent moves, which requires new measures to combat the more than 60 percent dropout rate of farm worker children. However, the U.S. must earn its right to be an international leader in this area by ratifying the basic international conventions dealing with child labor. We are the ONLY country in the world that has not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we have not ratified the basic ILO convention on minimum age for work, No. 138. Under these circumstances, it is more difficult for the U.S. to be a leader in persuading other countries to adopt stronger measures against child labor.

PAR: What are the latest developments in the fight against child labor?

Harvey: The Global March Against Child Labor was a massive public mobilization that began in 1997 and, in 1998, involved millions of people in 107 countries in campaigns and marches against child labor. The March culminated in Geneva, Switzerland in June 1998 where it was a strong lobbying presence for the discussion of a new international convention on the "Worst Forms of Child Labor." Thanks largely to this effort, the new convention was adopted unanimously this year by the ILO. Now, in more than 120 countries, Global March partners are working to secure the ratification of this new international treaty, and the carrying out of plans by governments and civil society to attack the most egregious forms of child labor, including slavery or bondage, trafficking of children in the sex trade or other illicit activities, and involving children in work that endangers their health, safety or morals. In another important initiative, the global teachers union federation, Education International, has begun a campaign for universal, free, and compulsory education, with a special focus on areas where child labor is a problem. Also, consumer campaigns have forced many companies to check their production overseas to make certain they are not employing underage workers. The ILRF is active in all these efforts, as well as developing educational campaigns with school children and others in the US.

 


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