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U.S. Signs Child Labor Treaty

President Clinton Thursday signed an international treaty that seeks to ban the worst forms of child labor and spare children a life of misery as slaves, prostitutes, soldiers and indentured servants.

"This is a victory for the children of the world, and especially for the tens of millions of them who are still forced to work in conditions that shock the conscience and haunt the soul," Mr. Clinton said as he signed the Child Labor Convention on the sidelines of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

"Children brutalized by the nightmare of prostitution; children indentured to manufacturers working against debt for wages so low they will never be repaid; children who must handle dangerous chemicals or who are forced to sell illegal drugs; children who crawl deep in the unsafe mines," he said.

President Clinton signs the treaty. Surround him are, from left, ILO director general Juan Somavia, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. John Lafalce (D-NY), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and at far right is U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.

"Children who are forcibly recruited into armed conflicts and then spend the rest of their entire lives bearing the scars of committing murder when they were eight or nine or ten years old," he added.

The Child Labor Convention was approved in June by all 174 members of the International Labor Organization and ratified unanimously by the Senate last month.

The treaty aims to protect those under 18 by targeting child slavery, forced labor, trafficking, debt bondage, serfdom, prostitution, pornography and exploitative work in industries using dangerous machinery and hazardous substances.

It urges states to enforce the pact by removing children from harmful work and providing rehabilitation as well as basic free education or vocational training.

The ILO estimates that at least 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 work in developing countries, half of them full-time, and says that tens of millions of them do so in exploitative and harmful conditions.

Mr. Clinton cited Pakistan's soccer ball industry, Brazil's shoe industry and Guatemala's fireworks industry as places where the United States wanted to stop child labor and give back children "the most precious gift of all: their childhood."

With the secretaries of labor and commerce, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and business leaders in the audience, Clinton said the treaty is proof that business and labor could come together on important international issues.

The step we take today affirms fundamental human rights," Clinton said. "Ultimately that's what core labor standards are all about. Not an instrument of protectionism or a vehicle to impose one nation's values over another, but about shared values, the dignity of work, the decency of life, the fragility and importance of childhood."

The Clinton administration played a leading role in negotiating the child labor treaty, unanimously approved in June by delegates to the ILO, which is an arm of the United Nations.

"This convention is a breakthrough for the children of the world and an important milestone in President Clinton's efforts to help us put a human face on the global economy," said Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.

U.S. officials sought to paint the child labor agreement as an example of cooperation between rich and poor countries on the vexing issue of labor standards.

Washington has been fighting to get the WTO to set up a working group on labor standards, something opposed by developing nations who see it as a protectionist tool to deprive them of their competitive advantage of cheap labor.

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