Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, has flown from a freezing December to a sunny Singapore for the first ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). There he will link up with some of the most authoritarian governments in the world to block any debate on the explosive growth in child labour around the globe.
Economic commentators tend to shrug their shoulders when the subject is mentioned. Sure, it's a bad thing, they say, but it is a normal stage of underdevelopment that rising world wealth is eroding. And a lot of child labour is helping out in family farms, or corner shops, or that very English mechanism of introducing children to the waged world: the newspaper round.
Nothing alas, could be farther from the truth. Child labour, far from decreasing as trade increases world-wide, is on the increase. Estimates at the beginning of the decade put the number of children under the age of 14 in waged, bonded, or slave labour at around 110 million. Last month, however, the International Labour Organisation published an authoritative survey showing that the total number of children at work around the world is at least 250 million. The number of children in the sex business, for example, is more than a million. Children working in agriculture are more likely to die from exposure to organic compounds and pesticides used on farms than from child-killing diseases such as malaria, whooping cough and diphtheria.
Some of these children are little better off than 19th-century slaves, sold into bondage by parents to pay a family debt. Brazil, one of the darling Latin American countries for the trumpeters of economic liberalis- ation, has more children aged 14 or under at work than India. Turkey, knocking on the door of Europe, has 24 million child labourers, and Thailand has more than 16 million identifiable child workers.
So what is to be done? Two measures are under way. An increasing number of businesses are embarrassed by their involvement with child labour. Many of the clothes, carpets, toys, cheap metal tools and utensils we buy are likely to have part of their low cost based on the exploitation of children. Most winter sun tourism functions on the exploitation of children.
More sensitive firms have begun to draw up codes that, at least in formal terms, commit them to avoiding the use of children as employees. Fifa, the world soccer body, has signed a deal with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions pledging that footballs used in international competitions and those sold in connection with events will not be sewn by children. But supervision and enforcement remain insurmountable problems.
The second measure consists of consumer boycotts and corporate campaigning. These can take the form of direct engagements to purchase goods known to be made under fair conditions, such as the coffee on sale from Cafe Direct or the carpets labelled with the Rug Mark scheme. The shaming of greedy corporate executives, whose buying trips to exotic places such as Bangkok or Bogot are far more fun than haggling with textile manufacturers in Bradford or Bolton, is beginning to pay off. In the US, giant retail chains such as Wall Mart have stopped buying goods made with child labour in Central America.
But while businesses and consumers are slowly moving, Whitehall remains indifferent. President Clinton and President Chirac have both urged that the issue of child labour be considered in Singapore, but British ministers have mobilised strongly to veto any discussion by the WTO of child labour. Anthony Nelson, the British trade minister, has worked overtime in Europe to ensure that the EU does not back the French and American call for child labour to be linked to the new rules governing world trade.
The American-French proposal is quite limited. It is simply that the WTO set up a working party to discuss the linkages between world trade and child labour and other core social rights. No new rules are being proposed, and the snail-like pace at which world bodies discuss issues is often a way of adjourning consideration of a problem rather than seeking its resolution. But so enthralled are British ministers with the ideology that trade does not concern those who work to produce the goods and services that constitute trade, that it is impossible for a British minister to support Clinton's and Chirac's modest proposal.
In turning a blind eye to child labour, British ministers make two further arguments. First, they point to countries in Asia that are opposed to discussing the issue of a link between labour and world trade. It is true that the bureaucrats and business elites running countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia want no discussion about the terms on which they trade with the world. But the institutions of civil society, such as churches, trade unions and other democratic organisations in the south, also need to be heard; and they have a different message.
The second argument is that rules linking trade and the abolition of child labour represent an interference in other countries' sovereignty. Well, so they do. Child labour is an absolute, not a relative evil. It should be abolished. Those who opposed William Wilberforce when he campaigned against slave labour said that slaves liked their jobs, or that it was a necessary, if unpleasant, part of free trade, or that Britain could not go it alone in calling for a total ban.
Wilberforce ignored such casuistry and Britain took a lead in removing slavery from the world. Is there another Wilberforce in the House? The pathetic Lilliputians who sit in Whitehall will arrive in Singapore today not to praise Wilberforce's memory, but to bury his spirit.
The writer is Labour MP for Rotherham.