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TO SAVE THE CHILD, DON'T IMPORT THE RUG

How many Americans would buy an expensive rug or other luxury item if they knew for sure that it had been made by children forced into virtual slavery and exploited for the nimbleness of their tiny fingers? The odds are that not many U.S. consumers are so callous. The carpet or clothing would lose a lot of its charm.

But until now, American consumers have had no way of knowing if they might be supporting child bondage when buying an imported product, and no way of bringing trade pressures to bear on countries that sanction it.

That will change, thanks to federal legislation that will ban the import of items made by children who have been forced into servitude.

The bill -- pushed through by independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont in the House and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin in the Senate -- is not perfect.

For instance, it will not affect clothing or footwear made by 13- and 14-year-olds who are not indentured servants. Child labor is bad, but what this bill singles out is even worse. And critics note that it will do nothing about the underlying poverty that forces children -- whether indentured servants or not -- into the types of working arrangements long banned in the United States.

But the bill is a start toward eliminating conditions so intolerable that many Americans might not have even suspected they could still exist. For example, human-rights monitors contend that rugs imported from India often are made by kids as young as 5 who are sold into bondage and then chained to their work stations to prevent their escape. Dirt-poor families in such nations may see the $50 fee they get for handing over their kids as the only way to survive. And though the tykes theoretically can work off the fee and eventually gain their freedom, unscrupulous employers -- and what other kind would there be in this type of arrangement? -- often pile on interest fees or huge penalties for the slightest mistakes. These extra charges can keep the kids locked into servitude until they turn 21.

The new legislation would have the U.S. Customs Service block the import of any goods "mined, produced or manufactured by forced or indentured child labor." It is estimated that the United States imports about $100 million worth of such goods each year.

Under the legislation, Customs investigators would visit a work site to determine if forced child labor was being used to turn out the goods. While there is still the potential for companies to try to hide their exploitation of kids, the law at least gives Customs a legal hammer with which to ban such goods -- something it lacked before.

If pure economics is the only consideration, it is impossible for companies that don't exploit forced child labor to compete with those that do. Slaves work cheap. But beyond the distortion these businesses work on a system of free and fair trade, the implications for the health and well-being of children are what made this bill imperative.

If American consumers now have to pay a bit more for luxurious rugs, they surely will gladly do so once assured that they're buying a product that hasn't been made by small kids chained to a work bench.