WASHINGTON — Responding to growing concern about child labor abuses by foreign manufacturers, a House panel promoted legislation Monday that would prohibit U.S. firms from selling imported goods made by underage workers.
The measure, introduced by the chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the concerns, was endorsed by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and television personality Kathie Lee Gifford.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on international operations and human rights, called child labor "an evil that must be fought as an enemy. It is time to join the battle and to fight for these forgotten children."
Detailing the pervasiveness of child labor abuses both in the United States and abroad, Reich warned the committee against expecting "any easy and quick solutions." He added, however, that the problem is a priority for the White House and promised to work with the committee to address the issue.
The bill would ban the import of products made by child labor, prohibit foreign aid other than humanitarian to countries that do not have child labor laws or do not enforce them, prohibit loans from the United States to agencies that use child labor, and direct U.S. representatives to the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to oppose the provision of funds to industries that use child labor.
The committee commended the efforts of Gifford. Since the manufacturers of her clothing line were accused of allowing subcontractors to abuse their workers in Honduras, Gifford has taken a leading role in trying to create an independent monitoring group to expose labor abuses.
"I have learned that each one of us, whether in Congress, in corporate America, in a television studio or in a shopping mall, has, as a moral imperative, the need to address this issue," Gifford said.
Separately, a coalition of labor rights activists held a news conference outside a downtown sporting goods store to demand that athletic shoe maker Nike improve the wages and conditions of its workers in Indonesia.
Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, said Nike wages are inadequate to maintain a basic standard of living and that plant supervisors force the employees to work overtime shifts. Ballinger said the conditions in Indonesia are "an embarrassment for Nike."
A spokesman for Nike denied the charges, claiming that Nike pays twice the minimum wage and strictly adheres to a company code of conduct that mandates that all subcontractors be in compliance with national labor laws. The minimum wage in Indonesia is $2.26 a day.
"There are over 800 Nike employees in Asia making sure the codes of conduct are being adhered to," said Brad Figel, director of government affairs for Nike.