KAMPALA (ILO News) – The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Mr. Michel Hansenne today called upon African nations to take urgent action to reverse the growing trend toward child labour on the continent and to take immediate steps to eliminate child labour in its most intolerable forms.
In an address, in Kampala, to the opening session of a tripartite meeting on child labour in Africa, he said that the current situation, in which some 80 million African children are obliged to work, was a cause for serious concern, but that "the future is even more worrying". The ILO estimates that if current economic and social trends persist, the ranks of Africa's child labourers could swell to over 100 million by the year 2015, with many of those children working in activities that are debilitating for their physical, moral and emotional well-being.
If this were to happen, said Mr. Hansenne, "it would not only be a tragedy for the children concerned, but for Africa as a whole, which needs educated, productive and healthy citizens."
In remarks delivered on behalf of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Right Honourable Kintu Musoke, the Prime Minister of Uganda, said that "child labour has become a reality in Africa and if the situation remains unchecked, Africa risks losing all her efforts towards lasting development." He pledged the cooperation of Uganda's Government to working with the ILO and becoming a full member of the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).
Mr. Musoke said that the Ugandan President called upon delegates to focus on three challenges: reaching a common understanding on what constitutes economic exploitation of children, work out a system of safety nets to be applied to the poorest communities which are most vulnerable to child labour, and to recommend to African governments a clear, time-bound programme of action against child labour.
Also speaking to the opening session, Mr. Ahmed Haggag, Assistant Secretary General of the Organisation for African Unity said that "Africa's future will and must depend on the nature of the measures for survival, protection and development of African children in their formative years."
He cited the especially heavy burden of women and children in cases of civil war and armed conflict. "Of the roughly 27 million refugees and displaced persons in Africa, the majority are women and children. We must unequivocally renounce armed conflicts as a means of solving economic and social problems and strengthen international standards protecting children."
National studies carried out by IPEC show that many African children toil long hours in private homes as servants, in farming, on construction sites, in mines, garages and shops in the informal sector. Some live and work in slave-like conditions, are forced into prostitution, or end up as street children.
Insisting that, "these children should be a priority for all of us," Mr. Hansenne said that "all too often, practices that have been tolerated for decades make these children invisible to the general public and political decision makers. The type of work they do should not be hidden if we want to fight it effectively."
Approximately 41 per cent of all youngsters in Africa aged 14 and under work full or part time, the highest average in the world, according to ILO estimates. Africa also has the highest percentage of working girls, approximately 37 per cent, but the ILO warns that the real figure could be much higher if the true extent of young girls working in low-paid or unpaid domestic service were known.
Mr. Hansenne declared that the ILO intends to pursue the development of effective legal tools to fight against extreme forms of child labour and has embarked on the preparation of new international standards, including a proposed Convention and Recommendation, which are on the agenda of the 1998 International Labour Conference to be held in Geneva in June this year.
The new instruments will seek to prohibit extreme forms of child labour, including slavery and practices similar to slavery, such as trafficking, debt bondage and forced labour, the use of children in prostitution and pornography, dangerous work in mines, quarries and factories and any type of work that is likely to jeopardize children's health, safety or morals.
Mr. Hansenne said that meeting the challenge of eliminating child labour would require firm political will, preventive action, notably in the form of free, universal and compulsory education, active support of new and existing international labour standards and implementation of time-bound programmes of action to abolish child labour, focussing initially on the most intolerable forms.
The ILO, which counts 174 member States, is convening the Kampala meeting under the auspices of the Organisation for African Unity and with the assistance of the Ugandan Ministry for Labour and Social Welfare. It is being attended by tripartite delegations (including representatives of governments, workers and employers) from 22 African countries and by other international organizations, including UNICEF, and NGOs.