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Amsterdam Conference Targets Child Slavery, Trafficking, Prostitution and Other Intolerable Forms of Child Labour


Press release | 25 February 1997


AMSTERDAM (ILO News) - The most harmful forms of child labour - slavery, debt bondage, prostitution as well as work in hazardous industries and occupations - and strategies to eradicate them as a matter of immediate priority will be the focus of an international round-table conference in Amsterdam, on 26-27 February.

Organized by the Government of the Netherlands in close cooperation with the International Labour Organization, the Amsterdam Child Labour Conference will bring together high-level government officials - including Ministers from some 20 countries - and child labour experts from around the world in an effort to raise public awareness of the plight of millions of children living, and working, under intolerable conditions.

The opening ceremony will take place in Amsterdam's Koepelkerk Conference Centre on Wednesday 26 February at 9:15 am in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

According to the ILO, one third of the world's roughly 250 million child labourers are engaged in work that is exploitative and hazardous to their health and well-being. A report to the Conference ( endnote) prepared by the ILO and the Government of the Netherlands identifies these as, "slavery or practices similar to slavery, the sale and trafficking of children, forced or compulsory labour including debt bondage, the use of children for prostitution, pornography or in the production or trafficking of drugs and other illegal activities, and the engagement of children in any type of work which is manifestly dangerous to their safety, health or morals."

In a press conference today, the Conference Chairman, Mr. Ad Melkert, Minister of Social Affairs and Employment of the Netherlands, called upon delegates to prioritize the elimination of the most intolerable forms of child labour. Minister Melkert put emphasis on "the simultaneous provision of alternatives for working children, especially education, which is of the utmost importance to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and child labour".

ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne denounced exploitative work carried out to the detriment of children as "gross violations of international law and national legislation unjustified by any economic circumstances."

The suffering of these children takes many forms. In developing countries, as many as 90 per cent of rural working children are engaged in agriculture or related activities, a sector where pesticides and fertilizers are commonly used and which occupational health and safety experts consider to be one of the most dangerous and difficult to protect.

In manufacturing sectors, such as glassworks, brick kilns, mines and carpet weaving, millions of children work in slave-like conditions, involving long hours, dangerous chemicals, heavy lifting and machinery.

In services, tens of millions of children, especially girls, work long hours as unpaid domestic servants, others are involved in street trade and petty services. Crime and poverty force millions more children into prostitution, pornography, drug dealing and other illicit activities.

The scale of the problem

The ILO estimates that of the 250 million working children between the ages of 5 and 14 nearly 120 million work full time and at least one-third work in hazardous occupations. By far the vast majority of child labourers are found in rural areas and in small, often family-run businesses. Contrary to public perceptions, the modern export sector plays only a minor role in absorbing child labour. Large concentrations of child labourers are rare; children are scattered around in many different workplaces, making them harder to identify and reach.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 per cent of all children work, in Asia and Latin America approximately 20 per cent. In absolute terms, Asia has the largest number of child labourers, accounting for 61 per cent of the world's total, (versus 32 per cent in Africa and 7 per cent in Latin America). Though less pervasive, child labour still exists particularly in industrialised countries, particularly in garment-manufacturing workshops and in seasonal and migrant work on large farms.

In South Asia "several tens of millions" of child labourers are exploited by slavery and forced labour systems, the most common of which is debt bondage in which children work to pay off a debt or other obligation incurred by a family, often over the course of generations, says the Report.

Other forms of virtual slavery include rural parents handing over their children to work as unpaid domestic staff in more affluent households or labour "contractors" luring children away from impoverished rural families (usually for a modest sum) to work in the manufacturing, domestic-service or sex-industry sectors of larger towns and cities.

The Report highlights the alarming increase of sexual exploitation of children, which "is becoming more serious, because children are being sold and taken secretly across national borders for the sex market all over the world." It is estimated that at least one million children are victims of the sex trade in Asia. Eastern Europe represents "an expanding market for child sexual exploitation" and child prostitution "is spreading in the industrialised countries."

While the sexual exploitation of children in prostitution and pornography is "a particularly lucrative business for those who organise it" the impact of such activities on children is "far reaching and even fatal." In addition to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and serious psychological problems, case studies and testimonies often "reveal a trauma so deep that many such children are unable to return to a normal life. Many others die before adulthood."

Use of children in other illegal activities, including drug production and trafficking and organised theft is also increasing. "In the major cities of Asia and Latin America, some street children, often drug addicts themselves, are involved in the drug trade." In several Central and Eastern European cities gangs of children, covertly organised by adults, have become involved in drug trafficking, pickpocketing and car theft.

Crippling body and mind

The Report points out that tens of millions of child workers are exposed to serious health and safety hazards, including radiation and dangerous chemical substances. In many developing countries, exposure to pesticides is a major cause of infant mortality. "An ILO supported study in the Philippines revealed that over 60 per cent of child workers were exposed to chemical and biological hazards, and that 40 per cent had suffered serious injuries or illnesses resulting in amputation or mutilation."

Because children are often not warned of the dangers they face, they are unaware of the precautions that need to be taken. And, by their very nature, children are ill-suited to long hours of strenuous and monotonous work. The effect of carrying heavy loads or maintaining awkward body positions can be particularly damaging to the skeletal structure of a child worker. In addition, children's level of concentration is lower than that of adults and they suffer the effects of fatigue faster. This is particularly true if they suffer from malnutrition, which is often the case.

Child workers are also more vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse. In domestic service, beatings, insults, punishment by being deprived of food and sexual abuse are known to be common.

Long hours of work not only impair physical and emotional development, they impair learning ability. The Report cites research conducted in the US which shows that the academic performance of young persons (12 to 17 years of age) is adversely affected if they have worked 15 hours a week. In developing countries, children work at earlier ages and usually for longer hours. Though data on the relationship between work at an early age and academic performance is rare, the effects are likely to be extremely negative.

The Report points to "a strong analogy between ILO child labour statistics and UNESCO school attendance statistics." According to UNESCO, up to 20 per cent of children of primary school age, some 128 million children, were excluded from education in 1990. Roughly half of all secondary school age children were not attending school. "It may reasonably be supposed that many of these children are engaged in economic activity, especially those excluded from secondary education. The ILO figure of some 120 million children working on a full-time basis would seem to indicate that this is indeed the case."

Supply and Demand for Child Labour

In many cases child labour costs little or nothing, with the vast majority of child labourers (over 75 per cent) working in small, family-owned businesses or on farms. Where wage costs are involved, it is usually in small, undeclared and financially precarious businesses. Often children are paid little more than pocket money, on the pretext that they are being offered the opportunity to learn a trade. In domestic service, children often receive no more than board and lodging. Little is known of child earnings in prostitution or pornography, but the bulk of sex-industry revenues go straight into the pockets of the organisers.

If children are paid at all, they are paid less than adults in most cases. An ILO statistical survey in Ghana revealed that child labourers were paid less than one-sixth of the legal minimum wage. In Indonesia, children earned about 75 per cent of the wage paid to unskilled adult workers. In Colombia, children aged 12 to 13 earn less than a quarter of the legal minimum wage.

In certain industries, notably hand-woven carpets, it is often claimed that recourse to child labour is necessary due to intense price competition. The ILO rejects this claim, noting that most child labour is employed by numerous small loom owners who supervise the weaving directly. Though these loom owners may double their income thereby, the sums involved are meagre. According to the ILO: "Relatively minor changes in the financial arrangements between loom owners, exporters and importers would reduce the incentive to employ child labour."

The Report identifies poverty as "clearly the main reason for the supply of child labour." Children of landless peasants or of under-employed parents are at greatest risk. However, poverty is not the only cause. At the international level, many countries are equally poor but have widely varying incidences of child labour: "Children subjected to the most intolerable forms of labour generally come from population groups which are not only economically vulnerable, but also culturally and socially disadvantaged." These disadvantaged groups include children of female-headed households, lower caste or racial groups, indigenous and tribal people and migrant families. Many cultures systematically favour the education of sons over daughters, thereby placing girls at risk of child labour.

New international efforts are needed

Though most child labour is in response to domestic demand, in some industries, demand for child labour is effectively international and ILO calls for action to discourage it, which needs to encompass all major producers so as to avoid "beggar thy neighbour" competition.

A recent example of industry-wide cooperation came when the ILO formed a partnership with the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry and UNICEF with the goal of eliminating child labour in the soccer ball industry in Sialkot, Pakistan. The agreement follows an initiative launched by industry groups representing more than 50 sporting goods brands, to eliminate child labour from the production of soccer balls in Pakistan. A recent ILO study estimated that as many as 7,000 children currently work in the industry.

The ILO's International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is also working in Sialkot on a broader initiative encompassing other sectors where child labour is to be found. An IPEC-sponsored programme involving child labourers in the garment industry in Bangladesh has been in place since 1995. ILO/IPEC today runs some 700 action programmes against various forms of child labour in over 20 developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. IPEC's future strategy involves tackling such intolerable activities as cross-border trafficking on an inter-country basis, with a goal to eliminating exploitation of children in prostitution, bonded labour, domestic service and hazardous work in commercial agriculture and dangerous industries.

The report notes that while political leaders and civil society (including trade unions and employer organisations) are essential to the effort to finding national solutions to the problem of child labour, the international community can contribute via reinforcing and developing the arsenal of international legal instruments.

In this context, ILO is now working to adopt a new international Convention on intolerable forms of labour. The Amsterdam Conference is expected to be a major step in propelling the initiative.

The Report points out that international cooperation over child labour is increasing in countries at all levels of development. There is a growing worldwide movement that exploitative and criminal action against children should no longer be tolerated, and as in the words of Mr. Hansenne, "that a crime against a child anywhere will be considered a crime everywhere."


Amsterdam Child Labour Conference (26 & 27 February 1997) – Background document prepared for the International Conference on combating the most intolerable forms of child labour: a global challenge. International Labour Office, Geneva, January 1997. ISBN 92-2-110501-6