ILO Director-General's opening speech at the third Global Conference on Child Labour

Statement | Brasilia | 08 October 2013
Representative of workers and employers,
Representative of civil society,

Dear friends,

Let me welcome you all at this III Global Conference on Child Labour. Together you have come from no less than 152 member states of the ILO. Governments are represented here, 37 of them by Ministers. The ILO´s employers and workers constituents are here to meet representatives and show their commitment and we are joined by our civil society partners whose cooperation is so important for the work that we do. Thank you all for being here.

It is not by accident that we are in this city capital of a country which has made the elimination of child labour a central component of its national policies to create a Brazil without misery and of its National Plan for Decent Work.This country is a living demonstration of the results that political will, the right policies, bipartite commitments, and global leadership can bring in the fight against child labour.

Madame President, thank you for your invitation and Brazil´s hospitality. Thank you also for the example and inspiration that you are providing. And congratulations to you and to your ministers for your achievements.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I see our Conference as a key milestones on the long march to a world free of child labour. The latest stage of that March has brought us from the last Global Conference in The Hague, May 2010, here to Brazil today.

We have come a considerable distance in this year and allow me to acknowledged the presence of Minister Ploumen of the Netherlands and the leadership demonstrated by her country, which finished in the Hague roadmap to help us find a way. But what we must achieve this week is a clear vision of what to do next, and the joint commitment to get there. I believe that the Brazilian Declaration will be a critical tool for us. But our prospects of bringing our long March successfully to its destination depends more than that:

It depends on our capacity to mobilise our governments, our organisations, our citizens to do what we know can be done.

In the coming years, Brazil will host sport events that will grasp the attention of the whole world – raise hopes, provide inspiration, exhilarate some, disappoint others. We need this conference to do the same. We cannot be less ambitious.

Most of you have read the ILO’s latest report of Global estimates and trends on child labour from 2000-2012. And if you have, you already know the bottom-line – the new number is 168 million child labourers. That’s the bad news: in 2013, 168 million children are still trapped in child labour, half of them in its worst forms that is only 27 million less than the entire population of Brazil. 168 million are still too many. These children constitute 168 millions reasons for our presence here in Brazil today.

There are still 168 million children in child labour, but that is a third fewer than when we first counted over a decade ago: 78 million fewer than in 2000. But most remarkable, it’s 47 million fewer than in 2008. In the four years from 2008 to 2012, child labour fell by 22 per cent. That is a remarkable acceleration in progress – not least as the fall in the previous four years was only 7 million – a figure that made us all very worried and got us thinking – and helped generate the last Global Conference in The Hague.

To focus our minds on child labour, to reflect on the trends, exchange experience and lessons learned and provide direction and impetus for the meeting the challenges ahead.

The remarkable progress we have made together, in these last years indicates that
  • we can not only think, but we can think deeply and strategically;
  • we are capable of acting; and
  • we are capable of acting together in a way that can make a profound difference, not just to a small number of children, but to the lives of hundreds of millions of girls and boys around the world.

Just think: twenty years ago, many countries denied they had a child labour problem at all. Twenty years ago, we were told that ILO Convention 138 on minimum age for work – the ILO’s basic child labour Convention – was unratifiable. Now it has 166 ratifications. Convention 182 on the worst forms has 177 – just nine to go to reach universal ratification.

For the first time, global estimates of child labour are presented for different levels of national income. The highest percentage is in the poorer countries. However when seen in absolute terms middle income countries are host to the largest number of child labourers. Therefore the fight against child labour is no means limited to the poorest countries it is not even limited to the poorest households. And all countries must maintain safeguards to prevent child labour.

Let’s look at the breakdown of the recent figures. There has been a small decrease in the percentage of child labourers in agriculture. There also has been an increase in the proportion of child labour in the services sector. 

That’s bad news. And remember that more than one fifth of those in the service sector are children in child labour in domestic work.

More good news: There are 40 per cent fewer girls in child labour. Good news to remember this Friday, the Day of the Girl Child. Two-thirds of the 5-14 year olds who were in hazardous work are no longer having their health and lives put at risk by worst forms of child labour (Yes, I said FIVE to fourteen year olds – don’t forget that many of these children are very young) . A two-thirds reduction of the youngest children in worst forms of child labour: that is progress.

But, we still have more to do for boys as well as girls: the rate of decline in the child labour of younger boys was only 25 per cent. And older boys, like younger girls, are still more likely to be in hazardous work. So gender sensitive policies must address the needs of all children.

From a regional perspective, the largest number of child labourers is found in the Asia and Pacific region but Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour with one in five children in child labour. So the good news is that in all regions there has been a decline, including in Africa. In Latin America and the Caribbean the decline was relatively small.

So what are we doing better and why? Well, we have the ILO’s Global Action Plan, which incorporates The Hague Road Map. Sister UN international organisations such as the FAO have expanded relevant programmes. The ILO IPEC has remained strong in technical advice and cooperation, NGO’s have remained vigilant in their advocacy. Donors have become more strategic. Most importantly, governments increasingly have taken up their responsibilities, in cooperation with partners.

We are seeing child labour concerns mainstreamed into public policy in multiple, relevant fields.

We see greater clarity about the need for better school-to-work transition and skills matching.

We see a new global consensus on the need to ensure social protection floors for all people.

We see greater understanding that decent work for adults and youth of working age is both a necessity if we are to ensure family incomes that do not rely on child labour – and in turn that child labour undermines decent work and decent wages for adult workers.

We see a far greater understanding that child labour exists predominantly in unpaid family work in agriculture, both formal and informal, and in the various other sectors of the informal economy. That doesn’t mean we should ignore children in paid employment and self employment, but it is important.

We see enterprises and trade unions beginning to take on board, more substantially than before, the challenges of the informal economy with enterprises understanding better how their value chains reach into the informal economy where work, by definition, is unprotected and unregulated and taking up the challenge of how to clean up their value chains and protect and respect human rights at work and remedy the violations.

We see labour inspection and agricultural extension services rising better to the challenge.

We see education ministries working to fulfill the obligation of states to ensure universal access to compulsory, formal education for all children up to the minimum age for work and to improve the quality of education – to ensure “decent learning” for children and decent work for teachers.

Our dear friend Kailash has often said “We won’t eliminate child labour until we have universal education. And we won’t get every child into school until we eliminate child labour”. That does mean a huge investment is required. We need 1.7 million more qualified teachers, at least.

We need to train and qualify the huge number of teachers who are unqualified. We need to make schools safe and joyous places for children.

So, we are seeing the development of more national action plans on child labour and they are increasingly linked to national decent work and development agendas. Decent work, enforcement of laws, social protection, education for all: these are the foundation stones on which we can build effective action. It is this action at the national and community levels that is really making the difference. The linking of bottom-up grassroots approaches with sound policy making and programmes.

Let’s be clear. On our current course we will not reach that target, and that stands before us. As a collective failure.

As Martin Luther King spoke to us when he said “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards freedom”. That is OUR JOB.

So, we must rededicate ourselves to eliminating the worst forms of child labour and child labour in all its forms. I take this opportunity to call on the few remaining member States which have not yet ratified ILO Conventions No. 138 and No, 182 to do so. I had hoped we would celebrate universal ratification of Convention No. 182 in Brasilia – so I call on the 9 countries to step up their ratification processes so this may be accomplished by 2016.

None of this is utopia today.

We are not dreaming.

We are here to put in place the strategic action that will end child labour. We are preparing our plans not our excuses.

Let me end by making a final point which I believe is particularly important for the ILO.

It is true that each participant here: Mininster, trade union, or employers, civil society activists bear individual responsibilities.

But above that we all have a collective global responsability. We need to act in unison and in solidarity to move forward together. That is the sense of Article 8 of Convention 182, which speaks of “Members shall take appropriate steps to assist one another in giving effect to the provisions of this Convention through enhanced international cooperation and/or assistance including support for social and economic development, poverty eradication programmes and universal education”.

It is also the meaning of ILO-IPEC. There is danger even as we believe we can enter the final phase of our long march that the international community moves its attention away from the fight against child labour. That would be tragic and it must not happen. So, the call from Brasilia must be for a renewed collective effort. Please, make that call.

I wish the III Global Conference all success!