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Oslo Conference to Seek Global Strategy for Combating Child Labour


Press release | 27 October 1997


OSLO (ILO/UNICEF News) ­ A global strategy for combating, and ultimately eliminating, child labour will dominate the agenda when the Government of Norway ­ in collaboration with the International Labour Office (ILO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) ­ convenes a 40-nation, ministerial conference here on 27-30 October.

The Conference is the latest in a series held amid mounting concern for some 250 million children who often work in exploitative and hazardous conditions and face injury, illness and even death.

Ministers of development cooperation, labour, education, social welfare and justice, as well as leaders of trade unions and employers' organizations, non-governmental organizations, United Nations and other multi-lateral agencies, and leading experts on child labour will work together to forge a new, comprehensive strategy for battling child labour, focusing on development cooperation as the key.

Globally, child labour is most prevalent in the less-developed regions. In absolute terms, Asia has the largest number of child workers (approximately 61 percent of the world total) as compared with Africa (32 percent) and Latin America (7 percent).

The Conference opens Monday, 27 October, at the Radisson SAS Scandinavia Hotel in Oslo with a two-day technical session to discuss ways of preventing and eliminating child labour through practical actions including legislation, education and social mobilization. For the first time, particular emphasis will be placed on the role of development cooperation.

Following the technical discussion, a political session will open on Wednesday, 29 October with a statement by the new Prime Minister of Norway, Mr. Kjell Magne Bondevik. Ms. Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF and Mr. Michel Hansenne, Director-General of the ILO will deliver keynote speeches. Ministers will then consider an "Agenda for Action" containing principles and options for the global elimination of child labour.

"The war against child labour is being won, and it can be won in all countries in the coming 15 years," says Mr. Michel Hansenne, Director-General of the ILO. "How? By adopting a four-point global campaign that includes mobilizing political will, backing it with a time-bound action programme that includes ending all extreme forms of child labour immediately, adopting a new international Convention against such extreme forms of child exploitation and translating the power of worldwide concern into international social and economic policy programmes."

Carol Bellamy says: "Children have the same full spectrum of rights as adults ­ not only civil and political, but social, cultural and economic rights. Child labour robs children of these fundamental rights ­ including the right to education. And education is the single most effective tool we have for eliminating child labour."

"Child labour is a consequence as well as a cause of poverty", says Ms Hilde Frafjord Johnson, Minister of International Development and Human Rights, Norway, who will chair the Conference. "I am therefore very pleased that it has been possible to bring together so many representatives of the various partners engaged in the problem of child labour".

A Staggering International Problem

According to a recent ILO study (Endnote 1) , some 250 million children aged 5-14 are working. About half, or 120 million, work full-time, while the remaining children struggle to combine work with schooling or other non-economic activities. Among the findings:

The figure of 250 million working children is considered to be an under-estimate. It does not include those who work in regular non-economic activities, such as providing full-time domestic service in the homes of their own parents or guardians. The number of such children is relatively large (about 15-20 percent of the total population of the same age group).

While current data shows that boys outnumber girls who work by three to two, statistical surveys often underestimate the number of girls who work by failing to include unpaid economic activity in and around the house, including household enterprises.

In absolute numbers, rural working children outnumber urban working children, while rural children are twice as likely to work as those in towns and cities. The vast majority of rural child workers are engaged in agriculture or similar activities. In contrast, urban children often work in trade, domestic, service and manufacturing sectors.

Many children work long hours for low pay. In some countries, up to 80 percent of working children work seven days a week. Most children working as paid employees earn far less than adults, and the younger the child, the lower the wage. Girls, on average, earn less than boys even though they tend to work longer hours in the same jobs. Generally, children are not paid overtime, nor do they benefit from social security and other similar benefits.

How Hazardous Is Child Labour?

Recent studies provide mounting evidence that child labour can be hazardous:

In some countries, more than two-thirds of working children face serious hazards, such as cuts, fractures, loss of body parts, crushing injuries, burns, skin diseases, sight or hearing loss, and respiratory illnesses.

Most injuries and illnesses occur in the rural areas. In global terms, boys suffer more injuries and illnesses than girls simply because boys tend to work in more hazardous jobs. However, girls may sometimes experience relatively higher incidence of injuries and illness, especially in rural areas.

Mining and construction are by far the most dangerous sectors for all children.

Practical Action Against Child Labour

The ILO, its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), UNICEF and other organizations have launched a global campaign against child labour, especially its most intolerable forms. Main areas of action include gathering dependable data; setting national priorities; enforcing existing law; providing education; promoting integrated action programmes; and, stimulating social mobilization and other alternatives. Some examples of key areas of action include:

Legislation is the single most important government response to child labour. In Pakistan, for example, a team of legal experts was recruited to help the government implement the Employment of Children Act and the Bonded Labour System (abolition) Act. Federal rules were translated into local languages and dialects, and Vigilance Committees were formed in the provinces to oversee their implementation. In Southeast Asia, a major programme on specialized training for labour inspectors in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines resulted in concrete actions. Also, there is renewed interest in reviewing national legislation and bringing it into line with international instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and ILO Convention No. 138.

As part of its campaign to eliminate child labour, the ILO is proposing the adoption of new international legal instruments in the form of a Convention and Recommendation to combat the worst forms of child labour ­ the persistent exploitation of children in slave-like and bonded conditions, hazardous and arduous work, prostitution, pornography and other intolerable situations. In a recent survey of over 200 governments and employers' and workers' organizations, overwhelming support emerged for the new Convention and Recommendation. The new Convention is scheduled for discussion at the International Labour Conference in 1998 and adoption in 1999.

Education is a fundamental right for children and now regarded as one of the key solutions to eliminating child labour. Yet even though many countries have adopted laws, few include provisions defining the responsibilities of parents or legal guardians. While poor or lacking educational opportunities is one reason why children work, affordable education of good quality, relevant to the needs of children and their families, is an attractive alternative even to the poorest families. The attraction is increased, if the link to improved employment prospects and higher income can be made.

In Bangladesh, the Government, assisted by UNICEF, is initiating support to 35 local NGOs, active in a range of alternative programmes for working children, to use their experiences in an education programme for over 350,000 working children. In Peru, the Faith and Joy Integral Popular Education Movement Association (Fe y Alegria) provides education to 56,000 children, emphasizing practical life and work skills and environmental education.

Dependable data is an important instrument for policy and programme development and an important tool for advocacy with regard to the problem of working children. The ILO has carried out surveys on child labour in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, Turkey and Thailand, and some 20 other countries have indicated interest.

Social mobilization or developing national policy frameworks for action is another means for combating child labour. An important step in this direction was taken with the establishment in Brazil, for example, of the National Forum for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Labour. The Forum, coordinated by the Ministry of Labour, is composed of 36 institutions, representing the federal government, employers' and workers' organizations and NGOs. In the light of 10 years of research and direct action, there is optimism that the child labour problem can be solved in the decades to come.

Forging Global Partnerships against Child Labour

The ILO and UNICEF have forged new partnerships to combat child labour. Partners include the following:

Government: The political will of governments to attend to the needs and rights of children is decisive for their protection and the promotion of their welfare. There is growing evidence that this political will is forthcoming. In addition, child labour is no longer seen as the sole responsibility of the labour and/or social welfare ministries. Others, including ministries of education, youth, family, information, health, and planning are now involved.

Employers' organizations have carved out a key role in the campaign against child labour, emphasizing the social responsibility of employers. For example, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers' and Exporters' Association (BGMEA), the ILO and UNICEF reached an agreement to withdraw all child workers below the age of 14 from more than 2,000 garment factories. In Pakistan, the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce (SCCI), ILO and UNICEF have joined efforts for the withdrawal of children engaged in the production of footballs.

Workers organizations. Workers have become involved in activities such as awareness raising and promotion of alternative education for working children. Unions in many countries have initiated pilot projects in ports, sugar plantations, garment production, farming and fishing sectors. The International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW), for example, recently launched a project in India to combat child labour at the brick kilns. The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) is implementing a project to help child textile workers in several countries in Asia.

Non-governmental organizations have played a primary role in discovering and denouncing child labour abuses, lobbying and advocating policy reform and proposing or providing direct services for working children. The ILO and UNICEF are also working with other groups such as media, universities, parliamentarians, health-care professionals and lawyers.

Governments of the following countries have been invited to the Conference:

  • Africa: Angola, Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania

  • Asia/Pacific: Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam

  • Americas: Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and the United States

  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom


Statistics on Working Children and Hazardous Child Labour in Brief. Bureau of Statistics, International Labour Office, Geneva, October 1997.