Child Labor Deterrence Act

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The Child Labor Deterrence Act was U.S. legislation to ban goods made overseas with child labor. The United States had tried and failed to establish international fair labor standards within the multilateral framework of the GATT. That failure provoked the U.S. to unilaterally demand workers' rights, pressing for international fair labor standards in nonreciprocal grant programs and extraterritorially applied domestic legislation. Senator Donald Riegle (R-Mich.), introducing the 1990 Senate version of the bill, described the victims of child labor as: first, helpless working children, like those in Morracco making rugs in Morocco 6 days a week for 15 cents an hour; and second, American workers, unable to compete with the slave wages paid in abusing countries.[1] CLDA imposes a minimum age requirement of fourteen years for child labor, in accordance with ILO Conventions no. 59 and 138.


The International Labor Organization opposed the bill in a report that argued, "The precipitous dismissal of children who are already working can also endanger, rather than protect, those children. In addition, undertaking measures which concentrate solely on child labor in the export sector may have the effect of driving child labor underground, further into the shadows and into even more unregulated economic sectors." Some poor countries argued that conditioning good trade relations on Western-style working conditions deprives developing countries of an important comparative advantage--cheap and plentiful labor. They argued that calls to reform labor standards in the Third World may be more a mask for protectionist motives on the part of rich countries than sheer altruism. Also, some poor countries do not have an adequate school system for children to attend as an alternative to working, and some families cannot afford to pay for tuition, supplies or uniforms.[2] Glenda Giron writes:[3]

With all good intentions, the United States passed the Child [Labor] Deterrence Act in order to ban imports of goods made by children younger than fifteen. In response to this short-sighted policy, Bangladesh dismissed thousands of child workers from their jobs, who immediately ended up in the streets, mainly working as child prostitutes. . . . . I believe that the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society reflects who we are, and the development and wellbeing of children should be a primary concern to all nations. Nevertheless, policy makers must understand that when faced with this complex human rights issue, simple moral indignation is not the best guide to effective public policy. The Guatemalan government must take a realistic approach to combat the child sex tourism industry. Most child rights advocates may oppose child labor; however, when faced with a strong demand for child sex tourism and a supply of impoverished Guatemalan children, responsible societies must choose the lesser of two evils.

Because CLDA employs a unilateral rather than a multilateral approach to the child labor problem, enforcement of the bill will put the United States in direct conflict with its corresponding obligations under the World Trade Organization. However, there are numerous countries that are not members of GATT, which could serve as potential targets of a CLDA ban without GATT ramifications.[4]


  1. Baby steps toward international fair labor standards: evaluating the Child Labor Deterrence Act.. Case Western Reserve journal of international law. (06/22/1992) , 24 (3), p. 631 - 666.
  2. Wildavsky, Ben A noble cause, unintended harm? (child labor deterrence). National journal (1975). (11/18/1995) , 27 (46), p. 2897.
  3. Giron, Glenda L (01/01/2005). "Underexposed child sex tourism industry in Guatemala". Kennedy School review 6: 59. 
  4. McElduff, Timothy P The Child Labor Deterrence Act of 1995: a choice between hegemony and hypocrisy.. St. John's journal of legal commentary. (03/22/1996) , 11 (2), p. 581 - 613.