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Address by Mr. Juan Somavia,
Director-General of the International Labour Office

to the Opening Session of the
Conference on Combating Child Labour: Building Alliances against Hazardous Work

(The Hague, 25 February 2002)

Thank you Mrs. Roldan-Confesor.

I am delighted to be here today and I thank Minister Vermeend and his colleagues for inviting me.

Minister Herfkens and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have also long been supporters of the ILO. I am indeed happy to be among old friends. Mr. Albracht I am pleased that we are participating in this joint activity.

But I would be even happier if there were no reason for us to meet on this subject - if child labour in all its forms were a problem of the past. Yet, even as we meet, millions of children are risking their lives and damaging their health in hazardous work situations. They are the reason why we are here today.

First, I would like to recognize the long-standing interest of the Government of the Netherlands in the subject of child labour and your support for the ILO's work in this field. Our first ever child labour project was implemented in the Philippines back in 1988 with your support. It targeted child scavengers on Smokey Mountain, a dump site in Manila. It helped us to understand the plight and needs of children through their eyes and showed the crucial role that different partners could play.

The Netherlands also organized an important international conference in 1997 which allowed tripartite exploration of the contours of the future ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. It was later unanimously adopted by the International Labour Conference in June 1999.

Over the last few years, your Government has made significant contributions to support the ILO's technical cooperation programme on child labour. And you continue to show your commitment through this Conference on hazardous work.

You assume the leadership role at critical junctures, taking up the gauntlet as new challenges emerge. Your commitment to putting solidarity into practice is reflected in the strong (50-year old) Dutch tradition of development cooperation which Minister Herfkens has been guiding and invigorating during her mandate.

I am certain that I express the sentiment of all here today when I thank the Dutch Government most warmly for organizing this Conference.

Today we are also seeing an example of building bridges and alliances in the fight against child labour. The International Association of Labour Inspection's engagement in this fight is reflected in their parallel event. I congratulate Mr. Albracht for this initiative. The synergy between these Conferences illustrates the approach that is needed in the fight against the worst forms of child labour. The linkage with labour inspection taps specific expertise and draws attention to the important role of labour inspectors. I want to salute all of you for the key role that you play in upholding labour standards - often with insufficient resources, in difficult circumstances and against all odds.

The faces of hazardous work are disturbing and painful. The lives and bodies of these children are literally diminished by what they do. It is a development challenge. We all know that. It is also a moral challenge. If adults need protection against hazardous work, think how much more imperative it is for us to save children in the same situation. We must do better for them.

The fact is that children may be drawn into work prematurely for many reasons - poverty- the most important one - but also tradition, absence of educational facilities, and naturally, because of lack of work for parents. And the North, the developed world, is not immune from the worst forms of child labour. Children are submitted to sexual exploitation through prostitution and pornography or are trafficked from other regions.

For many years it has been agreed that this should not be the case. This is what ILO Conventions 138 and 182 are all about. But laws on the books, a signature on a treaty, even a ratification by Parliament become meaningless without action. And action has been too slow. That is why I welcome this Conference. It's about how to move forward in the critical field of labour inspection. It is about the opportunity to exchange experience on the obstacles, the difficulties, the successes. Knowledge enables change. When you leave here you can bring the experience of others back to your own reality.

And there is a qualitative change in the air, a new readiness for action to tackle child labour in general and the worst forms as a matter of priority.

How did we get to this point? The ILO's concern with child labour dates back to our founding in 1919. It is not a recent whim. It was the subject of one of our earliest Conventions. Yet by 1995 only 45 countries had ratified the Minimum Age Convention and the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour did not yet exist. That was the situation only six years ago.

The Social Summit was a watershed. It defined seven ILO Conventions as the global core labour standards - standards concerning child labour, forced labour; discrimination in employment and occupation; and freedom of association and collective bargaining. They were defined as the social floor of the global economy. That was the agreement of the international community in Copenhagen. It was truly a breakthrough.

But, something else was equally important in Copenhagen. These core labour standards were linked to poverty reduction, to employment creation and to social cohesion. It was not a matter of core labour standards simply on their own. It was essential to have a balanced vision. And I believe that balance was the reason why the whole idea found so much support from around 120 heads of state and prime ministers coming from North and South. It was a major political commitment that developed and developing countries took together without preconceptions.

Within the ILO there was further progress with the adoption of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. With this step, member States undertook to promote and to realize the principles concerning the fundamental rights even if they have not ratified the relevant Conventions. At the same time, it calls on the Office to help countries through practical activities, to ratify and implement the fundamental Conventions. So it is a promotional instrument based on national ownership and international cooperation.

The ILO then integrated its normative policies and the fundamental principles and rights at work into its Decent Work Agenda. The other pillars are employment promotion especially through enterprise development as well as social protection and social dialogue. It is gender sensitive and development oriented. But it is also a universal agenda applicable in the North and the South. Just as the Social Summit placed core labour standards in a package, we too take the elements of decent work together for they are all interlinked and it is that integration which gives force in their implementation.

Employment is the principal route out of poverty. Today there are many different approaches to employment. The specificity of the ILO is that we set employment as an objective, not only as a by product of other policies. For example when feasible, we promote employment-intensive investment that is economically efficient. We believe that promoting policies which target the creation of productive employment and enterprise development are as important as sound macro economic policies.

The ILO agenda is a bridge between economic growth and decent livelihoods. Our child labour activities are set within this framework.

Our Agenda is striking a chord in many quarters - most recently in Porto Alegre and the World Economic Forum in New York. As Director-General of the ILO, I was invited to speak about the same Agenda in both places because it straddles the concerns of both. I saw the tremendous potential of the ILO Agenda to help bridge the gap between the worlds represented by Porto Alegre and Davos. It is not unusual once you think about it - part of the ILO constituency, trade unions, organized Porto Alegre and part, employers, organized Davos. The ILO's agenda already incorporates a number of interests out there.

The ILO has become a place where the future of globalization is being discussed. This is because the ILO can speak up with credibility for enterprise development as well as for enterprises that are free from child labour; for enterprises that respect fundamental principles and rights; in short we know that the enterprise - large, small and micro - can be a place of decent work.

And in doing all of these things, our agenda is responding to people's ordinary concerns about security and stable family lives. It responds to the anxieties that make many people protest against the present pattern of globalization.

In the area of child labour we are also seeing the results in terms of the ratification rate of our Conventions on child labour. The Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour has been ratified by 116 countries. Quite a figure for two and a half years, if you consider how difficult it is to get the ratification process through national channels. Equally remarkable is the acceleration of ratifications of Convention No. 138 - today 116 countries have ratified when some six years ago there had only been 45.

At this point I want to acknowledge the contribution of Assefa Bequele, who is here for this Conference and who was a major player in the pioneering work of the ILO in the field of child labour. I also thank Frans Röselaers the present director of our child labour programme and his team.

There is so much strong commitment behind the movement against child labour. Laws are important but personal commitment is key. It makes the difference. That, essentially, is why you are here. You believe in the fight.

I think we now have clear evidence of a strong political will to move forward quickly. I think that countries are willing to sign up to an approach that is not accusatory but which takes many things together and helps them move forward.

But, we are also going into uncharted territory, especially when we are dealing with hazardous work of children. This Conference can do much to shed light on the problems. Many countries are starting to try to do what is called for under Convention No. 182. This Conference will be of enormous value in helping them and others to rise to the challenge.

Fighting child labour and laying a sound foundation for development requires an integrated policy approach. As long as poverty obliges families to send their children to work, the next generation is condemned to the same fate. The relationship between child labour and poverty is complex and much more understanding is needed. Yet, we know that poverty cannot be an excuse for the many ways in which adults exploit the weakness and innocence of children for personal profit. If the children are labouring someone is benefitting. For parents it is a tragedy but others are profiting. Let us not forget that.

The evidence so far tells us that in combating child labour we are also contributing to the progress of economies and the long-term prosperity of women and men.

The fight against poverty means that policy must now reach where it might not have gone before. And one of these places is the informal economy where up to 90 per cent of people may work in some countries, including children.

By its very nature, the informal economy is difficult to know, difficult to pin down. But the ILO holds that rights at work are universal and the goal of decent work also applies to the informal economy. We will be discussing this at our International Labour Conference in June.

We do research on the informal economy. We also see how informal economy operators can organize and have voice, how they can gain access to social protection, how occupational safety and health principles can be respected in the most modest of circumstances.

Naturally our scope extends to child labour in the informal economy. It is probably one of the most difficult issues to tackle. And we are doing groundbreaking work on child labour in the informal economy - including through a project being implemented in Bangladesh with financial support from the Netherlands. Labour inspectors would know only too well how complex it is to move the activities of the labour inspectorate into the informal economy.

Let me end by noting that the policy environment for tackling child labour does not stop at national frontiers. And we have to ask whether the international rules that exist are supporting or hindering efforts to deal with the various underlying causes of child labour. If policies are working against each other, our best intentions will not get us very far.

Let me be a bit more specific - when structural adjustment policies are formulated, why do they have to be carried on the backs of those least able to bear the burden in the social and labour sector? Make no mistake - I am fully aware of the need for macro economic stability. But are we really so lacking in creativity and imagination that we can find no way of combining economic and social ends in a single policy framework? - especially when that macro economic stability is threatened by social instability. I don't think so. It can be done.

The World Bank has moved forward by taking poverty reduction on board. But the key escape hatch out of poverty - employment - is missing from the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers or PRSPs We have taken this up with the Bank and we are now collaborating with them to introduce the decent work perspective in five pilot countries.

The ILO's contribution to the fight against child labour is multi faceted and multi level. Over the last decade we have established a major programme of technical cooperation to combat child labour. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) has grown from a single donor programme funded by Germany and covering six countries in 1992, to one which now covers 75 countries worldwide with support from 28 donors, principally the United States.

UNICEF is also an important partner. And civil society institutions like the Global March Against Child Labour also play an important role.

All the countries represented here today are ILO partners in the fight against child labour. We have also been working with many of you to develop new approaches.

I want to single out the Time-Bound approach for particular mention. It is built on two key principles - national commitment and sustainability. Countries undertake to prevent the engagement of children in the worst forms of child labour; to secure the withdrawal and rehabilitation of those already in such situations; and to protect working children of legal working age. And to do these things within a specific time frame, established by themselves.

This is a major commitment. This approach highlights a critical issue. Eliminating child labour will not be achieved just through projects. Projects can point to possibilities. The change is going to come with a genuine national commitment - a truly societal commitment - governments, employers, workers, different leaders getting together and being prepared to work on this issue beyond politics. We have to set in motion the process by which society rallies around the commitment. This is what will get us to the stage where child labour is unthinkable, unprofitable and unnecessary.

To conclude, let me share with you some thoughts on what we should be aiming for in the next phase of the fight:

  • Seek universal ratification of Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour in the next few years and continue expanding ratification of Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age. Universal ratification would be a great global symbol.
  • Invite countries to make a time bound commitment to eradicate the worst forms of child labour and to assume national ownership of the fight.
  • Global solidarity on child labour should be translated into greater development cooperation and financing policies in the developed countries to provide effective backing for national commitment, based on an integrated approach to the elimination of child labour. The Netherlands and the European Union - drawing on the experience of the European social model and the importance you attach to core labour standards - can play a major role in leading this effort.
  • International institutions, not least the World Bank and the IMF must integrate and mainstream the struggle against child labour into their policy-making.
  • We have to develop and strengthen networks and partnerships against child labour that will reinforce and facilitate national action - like our Conference today. There are many other initiatives that can be promoted.
  • Certain categories of the worst forms of child labour - slavery, sexual exploitation, illicit activities and young children brought into war situations - assume the form of absolute crimes. Could we not begin thinking about declaring them crimes against humanity? Because it is a crime against humanity to do these things to children. It would be a key way of expressing intergenerational solidarity.

We owe it to the children of today to help them realize their potential to become the adults of tomorrow; and to fully develop their talents and strengths at school rather than endure work which weakens and destroys that potential.

We must do these things so that they can have the childhood to which they are entitled.

And by doing so, we lay the foundations for them to have an adult life as full-fledged citizens living in dignity and contributing to the development of their society under decent working conditions.

Thank you.


Updated by SD. Approved by AC. Last update: 6 March 2002.