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A world without child labour is possible

 InDepth News 21 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) “Ahead lies the challenge of sustaining recovery and building an employment-oriented framework for strong and balanced growth. This defines the context for future action to end child labour. The task is enormous; our commitment must not waver and it must be reflected in deeds.” Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, shares his view on one of the world’s most worrying issues. (1443 words) - Juan Somavia*

GENEVA, Switzerland - This Global Report comes at a critical juncture. Looking back to 2008-09, the world has had to cope with the impact of a financial and economic crisis. Ahead lies the challenge of sustaining recovery and building an employment-oriented framework for strong and balanced growth. This defines the context for future action to end child labour. The task is enormous; our commitment must not waver and it must be reflected in deeds.

Four years ago, in the second Global Report on child labour, I underlined the fact that a breakthrough in the fight against child labour was possible. That Report showed that child labour was declining. Public awareness had increased; indifference and denial were no longer possible.

The commitment of member States was reflected in the high ratification of the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), and the very rapid ratification of the Worst Forms of Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), which came into force ten years ago. Legislative reform was proceeding apace, new approaches were being applied.

There was a widespread mobilization across governments, employers' and workers' organizations, enterprises and consumers, and members of the general public.

Given these developments, we were optimistic enough to set the goal of ending the worst forms of child labour by 2016. The challenge we set ourselves was to raise our game and ensure that we would continue to give effective leadership at all levels in the world movement against child labour.

Substantial progress has been achieved throughout the world. This Global Report highlights important national achievements. Tripartism and social dialogue have been important assets and major means of promoting sustainable approaches to the prevention and elimination of child labour. The social partners are deploying their comparative advantages within the workplace, and have been active in global and national policy development.

Yet the picture which emerges from this third Global Report and the recent monitoring of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is mixed. There is cause for some concern.

On the positive side, there is a welcome decline of child labour among girls and among children in hazardous work. We are also within sight of universal ratification of Convention No. 182. These are significant achievements.

But overall, indications are that progress is uneven: neither fast enough nor comprehensive enough to reach the goals that we have set. This Report describes a slowing down since 2006 of the global pace of reduction. Child labour among boys and young people in the 15-17 age group has risen.



In sub-Saharan Africa progress has stalled - this is disappointing. Africa had been identified as a region needing particular attention in our last Report. The bottom line is that some 215 million children across the world are still trapped in child labour.

The persistence of child labour is one of the biggest failures of development efforts. And now there are concerns that the global economic downturn will put a further brake on progress towards the 2016 goal for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour and render the challenge of achieving the MDGs all the more difficult.

The economic downturn cannot become an excuse for diminished ambition and inaction.  Instead it offers the opportunity to implement the policy measures that work for people, for recovery and for sustainable development.

The Global Jobs Pact adopted by the International Labour Conference in June 2009 applies the Decent Work Agenda to the crisis. It offers an integrated portfolio of tried and tested policies centred on employment and social protection measures that are indispensable for a "working out of poverty" approach.

The measures protect and empower vulnerable people while also helping to sustain aggregate demand. Such policies can mitigate the impact of the crisis on families living in poverty, keep children out of child labour and help to stand them in good stead for a future free from child labour.

The UN system crisis initiatives developed by the UN Chief Executives Board, specifically those relating to jobs and social protection with which the ILO is closely involved, offer another avenue to advance this approach.

New and large-scale efforts are needed in order to re-establish our hope of attaining the 2016 target. The situation today calls for a re-energized campaign against child labour. We must scale up action and move into a higher gear. At this time, the ILO's leadership in keeping up the momentum for the elimination of child labour is all the more critical.

The directions for the future are clear. Mutually reinforcing action is required in the following areas: confirming and enlarging access to universal basic education; building a basic social protection floor; and promoting productive employment opportunities for parents in order to set families on the route out of poverty and children out of child labour.

This integrated approach is key to securing significant and lasting impact. There must also be a greater focus on agriculture which accounts for the majority of child labourers. Africa calls for special attention.

Social dialogue is a key vehicle for progress. Through reinvigorated advocacy, the tripartite ILO must be a central actor and a powerful advocate in the movement against child labour. It will need to extend and reinforce coalitions for the cause, tapping the potential of new media for this purpose.

Since the early 1990s the International Labour Organization has played its role in bringing child labour to the global agenda. The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) has been on the ground since 1992, and in the 2008-09 biennium it was operational in over 90 countries.

Drawing on the Decent Work Agenda and the integrated approach it advocates, IPEC provides support to our constituents to mainstream child labour in key policy areas and to promote laws and practices to fight child labour, starting with its worst forms.

Increasingly, Decent Work Country Programmes have become the framework for our engagement. The ILO's participation in the UN Reform process has led to new opportunities to advance the goal of decent work and, as part of it, the elimination of child labour.

IPEC is approaching its 20th anniversary. This Report calls for a shift of focus towards knowledge development, evidence-based analysis of policies and dissemination. The ILO's influence and value added will be very much linked to the quality of insights and the knowledge that we are able to generate.

At the same time, many countries still need assistance in scaling up their programmes to achieve the necessary impact. International solidarity - including the commitment of resources - will continue to be indispensable to support these lines of action.

These are testing times for the realization of our values and commitments. Progress is fragile. Countries too are fragile in the face of endemic conflict and natural disasters. We must rekindle the vision, the conviction and the courage to make the changes that can transform the lives of children and their families.

We will not get there with a "business-as-usual" approach and fragmented and piecemeal initiatives.

In the 1990s when the child labour issue came of age, countries and communities rallied strongly to the cause. We must recapture the sense of urgency. It is time to re-energize the campaign that drives the fight forward and to chart a road map that can keep us all on course towards the goals we have set.

The impetus for action will be given a boost at The Hague Global Child Labour Conference in May 2010. Hosted by the Government of the Netherlands and supported by the ILO, it follows the milestone Conferences held in Amsterdam and Oslo in 1997 which were instrumental in paving the way for the global consensus on action against child labour.

In the last few years South-South cooperation has gained ground as an engine for action on global issues including child labour. Brazil has been a leader. Such initiatives are to be encouraged in keeping with the spirit of Article 8 of Convention No. 182, which calls for member States to take appropriate steps to assist one another in addressing the worst forms of child labour.

We cannot abandon our responsibility towards the world's children for whom child labour is a matter of survival. We must now reassert our conviction that a world without child labour is possible; within reach. The world cannot grow weary of the cause when 215 million children are losing their childhood and the chance of a better future. With the will, the means are there to do better and to do more.

*Juan Somavia is Director-General of the ILO. The viewpoint first appeared as preface to 'Accelerating action against child labour. Report of the Director-General, International Labour Conference, 99th session', May 10-11, 2010 in The Hague.

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