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A friend reminded me this week that it will very shortly be time to embark on that annual frenzy of gift-buying that we in America have somehow attached to Christmas. She did so not with a card, or a phoned complaint about the merchants' rush to get their decorations up early and their sales started, but with a clip torn from the Washington Post's Style section.

"Child Labor Debate," said the article on one side of the page. "Putting an End to Sweatshops," was the headline on the other side. The two stories were accompanied by the usual wrenching pictures of young children at work.

The writers pointed out that a large and ever-growing proportion of those millions of gifts we will buy this holiday season are made in other countries by children who work incredibly long hours for shockingly low pay.

The International Labor Organization estimates that between 100 million and 200 million such children labor around the world to make our shoes, our baseballs and soccer balls, our shirts and dresses. Quite often, the desperately poor parents who sold these children into virtual slavery are doing the same sort of work nearby, for wages almost as low. Most of the groups working to end child labor believe that American buying habits can have a huge effect. In Bangladesh, for instance, rumors that the United States would soon stop importing products made by children were so worrisome to local manufacturers that over half the youngest workers were fired in a year. That had other consequences not foreseen by the critics, but it did demonstrate the power of American dollars.

But what does an ordinary, harried American, concerned as he or she may be, do as a practical matter? Christmas gift-buying is already complicated enough, what with checking for safety standards on toys for young kids, and violence/sex ratings for movies and computer games, and so forth. There isn't yet a similar, easy-to-find, easy-to-read label that tells whether a toy or a T-shirt is "human rights friendly."

Several groups are working on such an identifying mark, including a White House Apparel Industry Partnership, involving labor, religious and industry representatives. One program has already been set up in India and Nepal to establish a certifying label for carpets, called "Rugmark." But no one's gotten very far on other products. Still, it isn't that hard to add this to your mental screening system.

A number of large companies have already established "No Child Labor" policies for their overseas suppliers. The best of them, including Reebok and Levi Strauss, also have active systems to make sure their suppliers live up to the policy, which not incidentally includes provisions requiring fair wages and working conditions for adult workers.

Other companies such as J.C. Penny, Sears and Federated Department Stores, which runs Stern's and Macy's, have policies, but no formal way to enforce them. Still other companies have no policies at all.

Lists can be found on the Internet or by mail from the National Consumers League (1701 K St. N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20006) or the Council on Economic Priorities (30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003). The U.S. Dept. of Labor has a substantial "No Sweat" campaign to wipe out sweatshops, including the child labor often found in such places. It also will furnish a list of complying companies.

But the easiest way for the individual buyer to make an impact, most of these groups agree, is simply to ask questions. When you are thinking about buying a toy, or a dress, ask the salesperson if his/her store has an anti-child labor purchasing policy, and if so, how it is monitored. The salesclerk may not have much of an answer at first, but the message will get through to the managers. An occasional letter to company headquarters doesn't hurt, either.

With just a little effort, we can remind the people we buy our goods from that Christmas is a time for children to enjoy, not work.

King Features Syndicate

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