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Statement by Juan Somavia,
Director-General, International Labour Organization

at the Conference of Presiding Officers of National Parliaments

(New York, 30 August - 1 September 2000)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I come before you as a friend of the Inter-Parliamentary Union: a relationship that began decades ago.

You were at the forefront of the international political solidarity with the struggle to recover democracy in my country, Chile. The relationship continued with many of your members in the South American Peace Commission, a civil society organization I founded in the middle of the 1980s. It took on a new momentum when we worked together to make the World Summit for Social Development a political success.

As Ambassador to the United Nations, I was a staunch supporter of creating a permanent Parliamentary Chamber within the United Nations system. At the General Assembly in October 1998, I stated that "the United Nations cannot treat the Inter-Parliamentary Union as if it was just another non-governmental organization. It should be afforded a special status". In my personal capacity, I will continue advocating in that direction.

With this background, it was only natural that one of my first activities as Director-General of the ILO was to sign an agreement of cooperation with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, together with your Secretary-General, my good friend Anders Johnsson.

The IPU was created in 1889. The ILO was established in 1919. Your founders William Randall Cremer and Frederic Passy were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So was the ILO.

It is strange that it took eighty years to decide to formalize our links of cooperation when we were born fundamentally for the same purpose of promoting dialogue and understanding on key political issues of the times.

The ILO brings together governments, employers and workers to design a better social architecture in the world. Parliaments build the edifice of democracy through national debate and political action. We forge international conventions and you convert them into national legislation. Inevitably, our paths intertwine.

Today, when the world ushers in the era of globalization, we confront new challenges.

A growing number of people across the world are feeling a heightened sense of insecurity and anxiety. This threatens to undermine the support for open economies and open societies, because people don't see the benefits in the life of their families.

To redress this situation, we need to put a social pillar under the global economy. We need to strengthen the governance of globalization with more fairness and greater opportunities. We need to make markets work for everybody.

I believe that the strategic instrument for dissipating the disenchantment with the present form of globalization is to accelerate the rate at which decent work is created in the global economy.

Decent work is the most deeply felt aspiration of people in all countries, developed and developing. It is the way ordinary women and men express their need for personal dignity: work through which to meet the needs of their families in safety and health; to educate their children, and enjoy income security after retirement; work in which they are treated decently and their basic rights are respected.

But there can be no decent work without work itself. Employment policies and the enabling environment for enterprise creation should be at the very centre of any political and sustainable growth agenda. We need to create a global commitment to make jobs and productivity flourish together, making sure those jobs are of acceptable quality and deliver the goods not only for the consumer but for the workers as well. The ILO is firmly committed to this task.

But today, above all, I stand before you to plead a cause: the cause of those children forced to work and deprived of their childhood. I have come to ask all of you to join the ILO global campaign to wipe out child labour from the face of the earth. I ask you to ratify ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

Imagine a country the size of the United States, in which the entire population - 250 million - is made up of child labourers. Then imagine further, within that population, an underclass of children more numerous than the citizens of France or the United Kingdom - some 60 million - working in conditions that cripple their bodies, minds and souls, conditions that stunt their growth and shorten their lives.

No one would tolerate such an abomination if it were visibly concentrated in one place. Yet, there it is: hidden, dispersed and tolerated throughout the world. An abhorrent legacy of the twentieth century, and a moral challenge for the twenty-first.

Child labour is not just jobs for kids. It is neither a valuable work experience, nor apprenticeship combined with schooling that enhances a child's present and future prospects. Child labour - in its worst forms - is abuse of power. It is adults exploiting the young, innocent, weak, vulnerable and insecure for personal profit.

Child exploitation is also lack of opportunity for parents. Together with the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, it is the biggest failure of development efforts. It represents the dark side of the global economy and of our own societies. Often, a child's pay is the only family income.

Does all of this sound dramatic? Well, it is. These children may not be sufficiently visible, but they are certainly listening to our silence.

You have the power to act. The power to act individually, the power to act in your own parliaments, the power to act globally. The power of your voice.

In the name of the working children of the world, I have come to ask you to use that power for their redemption.

It is difficult to deal with the whole problem at once. We need to set priorities. The unanimous adoption by the International Labour Organization in 1999 of the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, Convention No. 182, does that. With it, we are committing ourselves:

- not to tolerate the sale and trafficking of children;

- not to tolerate the use of children in prostitution, pornography and drug trafficking;

- not to tolerate the employment of children in mines, factories and other workplaces which, by their very nature, are likely to cause serious risks to their health, safety and moral well-being;

- not to tolerate excuses concerning any sort of child exploitation, regardless of country, culture or development levels.

Action is in your hands. The parliaments of each member State must ratify this convention and incorporate it into national legislation. So far, 36 out of the 175 member States of the ILO have ratified Convention 182 in its first year of existence. It is a record. It will come into force on 19 November 2000. For those parliaments that have not yet done so, I entreat you to give it the highest priority.

Once the Convention is ratified, you can establish parliamentary commissions or rapporteurs to monitor and oversee its implementation.

This new Convention should generate policies and programmes that strengthen the hand of governments, parliaments, civil society, trade unions, businesses, and concerned citizens everywhere who are determined to stand in the defence of working children. We are moving forward: at the request of local governments, ILO is active with programmes in more than 60 countries.

But beyond your power as parliamentarians, it is your personal commitment, your personal involvement, that I am seeking. In a world without causes, I invite you to join hands and minds and hearts in making the eradication of child labour a global cause. Not in words but in actions; not in speeches but in policies, legislation and personal conviction.

A global cause that we can all share across regions, cultures, spiritual traditions and political convictions. Eradicating child labour should become a common objective of all governments and their political oppositions in every country. It should become a source of national consensus not of national divisiveness.

Let us ratify the new ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour as a matter of urgency.

Let us develop global policies that will give decent jobs to the parents and education to the children.

Let us make this historic first meeting of Presiding Officers of national parliaments in the United Nations, also a historic opportunity for the working children of the world.

Updated by SMP. Approved by GBR. Last update: 12 October 2000.