When President Bush visited Guatemala yesterday to promote the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) free trade, he didn’t meet with any of the more than one million Guatemalan children under age 18 that are working full time.
A 2000 review by the United Nations found 16 percent of Guatemalan children between the ages of 5 and 14 were in the labor force. 30% never finish the first grade.
Mr. Bush promised that free trade will raise incomes, living standards and working conditions in Guatemala.
He conveniently ignored that the opposite has happened in Mexico under North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the model for CAFTA. There wages and living standards have actually fallen and over 250,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since NAFTA was enacted. Wisconsin, incidentally, has also lost more than 25,000 manufacturing jobs due to NAFTA.
Free trade didn’t eliminate child labor in the United States or the rest of the developed world. And it won’t eliminate it in Guatemala or anywhere else despite the President’s promises.
Children under sixteen composed 20% of the United States labor force at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Labor unions and socially conscious citizens sucessfully campaigned against it.
Government regulation, not the invisible hand of the market, led to its’ eventual elimination. And even that was a battle. The first federal law restricting child labor in the United States, the Keating-Owen bill of 1916, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as interference with free trade.
The devotion of the Supreme Court to unrestricted free trade forced the fight to the state level. Child labor was eventually curtailed as states like Wisconsin passed compulsory education laws. The Milwaukee Vocational School, Milwaukee Area Technical College’s predecessor, was established by the State Legislature to ensure that all of Wisconsin’s child workers received some education.
President Bush didn’t mention these salient facts on his brief stop in Guatemala. Reality has never been important to this administration as evidenced by its positions on Iraq, Katrina and global warming to name only an obvious few. The President’s goal in Guatemala was to promote global corporate interests. From this perspective cheap, compliant child labor is simply a comparative advantage.