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Children pay the price of 'Free Trade'

There is a poignant scene in the new movie "Walk the Line" where Johnny Cash's adolescent brother is tragically killed working with a saw. The theater was silent, as dramatic tension built.

I cannot begin to tell you how abhorrent it was to watch a young child work a power saw toward the inevitable consequence. I wanted to spring from my seat and scream, "NO, he is not old enough to operate it, please stop him!" Yet, I remained quiet with clenched fists knowing this was only a movie depicting a time many years ago when our country lacked adequate labor laws to protect our children.

Today, I vow to no longer repress my scream, it will be loud and long and terrible, until those in high places hear. I have learned that what I viewed on film is in fact a terrible reality. It is unconceivable that as 2005 comes to a close, child labor is increasing throughout the world and young children are still being sent to work using dangerous tools.

Don't let them fool you, there is nothing "free" about a free trade agreement that turns a blind eye to the plight of children, often as young as five who ought to be in school, yet labor long hours harvesting crops such as sugar canes using dangerous machetes and knives, inevitability mutilating themselves.

The most appalling component of this equation is that enough sugar to satisfy America's massive sugar fix could easily be grown in a country that has not used manual labor in sugarcane cultivation since the early 1960's, OURS!

Some trade agreements, such as CAFTA in this illustration, not only have sold out our American sugar farmers, but the trade agreement was sealed with the blood of hundreds of children maimed each year harvesting sugar canes.

CAFTA is a prime example of a trade negotiation that is regarded as a hole in the dyke for some segments of agriculture, and a tsunami by others like American sugar cane and citrus farmers. In the case of our sugar farmers, while CAFTA only provides access to a small group of Central American countries; Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica (who share a combined GDP that is the size of New Haven, Connecticut), the pact has primed other major sugar exporters in South America (who produce three times more than we consume in the US) to lobby for similar restraints on tariff.

As world population and economies grow so will demand, thus, more foreign acres under cultivation equates to more children being exploited. The only nation with the clout and muscle to establish fair labor practices in Central and South America is the United States. We start by making trade negotiations accountable to what we require from American producers, instead of permitting countries merely enforce their own paltry labor standards.

In El Salvador alone, the International Labor Organization reported that in 2003 at least 5,000 children worked the sugar cane harvest. Human Rights Watch has said that number is closer to 25,000; sadly, no one really knows....or cares. Researchers for this group reported scars, fresh cuts, bandages or missing limbs on nearly all the children they interviewed. Thankfully, there are compassionate groups that voice opposition to child agricultural labor. The Presbyterian Church has passed a resolution opposing CAFTA in its current form, citing their position is due to its "Failure to protect workers rights, human rights, food security, and environmental standards."

The only thing that separates our children, who bask in affluence, with children laboring desperately to provide it, is fate, the simple origin of birth.

I believe we have a moral responsibility to become educated regarding the ramifications of the effects of our purchases beyond self-gratification. Support free trade only when it is truly free, with a level playing field.

Let this holiday season with it is abundance of delectable sweets serve as a constant reminder to nurture a climate of compassion in 2006 that will reach beyond our nation and allow us the opportunity to effect change. In our new global economy, let us not be so quick to sell-out our American farmers whom we uphold to the highest standards, for the simple luxury of cheap imports that will ultimately cost us dearly, both environmentally and ethically.

Of course, we need trade negotiations for commerce, but children should never be "Traded" away in the process. Voice opposition to these unjust practices to those involved in the negotiations, state legislators, U.S. senators and representatives. If they will not listen, then let us all vow to shout louder.

Susan Allen represents the Food Forethought Foundation.

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