Children's World Congress: Child labour far from being eradicated - education is the key

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions

ICFTU Online, Florence

According to participants at the Children's World Congress on Child Labour, achieving universal free primary education worldwide is an essential part of the solution to ending the continuing scourge of child labour worldwide. The three-day congress convened 10-13 May, in Florence, the capital of Tuscany, Italy.

Around 250 million children are still involved in child labour*, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). There is clearly a mismatch between the universal public condemnation of child labour, and the reality, which is that the international community has not yet taken the necessary steps to combat it - children from all over the world were joined by a wide range of organizations and governments; the ICFTU, representatives of several national and international NGOs, as well as the World Bank, the ILO, and representatives of several national governments, including Brazil, Mozambique, Costa Rica and the United States.

Testimony at the Congress showed how much remains to be done. Andrews Addoquayetagoe, of the ICFTU-affiliated Ghana Trades Union Congress told of how thousands of Ghanian children, some bonded labourers, work in the fields as "scarecrows" to prevent bats ruining crops. Elsewhere, children, work mending fishing nets, and freeing tangled nets underwater. The GTUC strengthening union education programmes in farming and fishing, where many do not see anything wrong with child labour.

A statement drafted by the child participants expressed frustration with the "empty promises" of governments and had a strong emphasis on education for all. "Most children have expressed that they are losing faith in the governments because of their empty promises. They have made many promises to end child labour through education and better social services. But they do not act. Their promises are not met with real commitment or resources."

ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder spoke of the importance of education as the main tool to fight child labour, "Just taking children out of work is not a sustainable approach. Such programmes must be linked to free and universal primary education, and this must be linked to respect for the rights of adult workers. Any development projects which serve to perpetuate the involvement of children in child labour are counterproductive".

This view was echoed by many at the Congress. "Child labour work is not charity work - it has to be part of the broader decent work agenda", commented Sonia Rosen, a former US State Department official who worked on child labour issues under President Clinton.

According to Kailash Satyarthi, founder of the Global March Against Child Labour, "There has been enormous progress on several fronts. We are succeeding in building a worldwide civil society movement. Political will has been mobilised resulting in ratification of the two ILO conventions, and there has been an upsurge in children's participation in the fight to end child labour, involving both former child labourers and school-going children. The impacts have included increased school attendance and progress in social responsibility on the part of business".

CGIL, CISL and UIL, the three Italian affiliates of the ICFTU, played a major role in preparing the congress, one of the highlights of which was a joint protocol they signed with the regional government of Tuscany, to join the fight against child labour.

The congress was not without controversy. Italian unions joined many others at the congress in expressing outrage at a statement by Maria Burani Procaccini, President of the Commission for Childhood of the Italian Parliament, who argued that children have the right to work and the right to form children's 'trade unions'. Savino Pezzotta, Secretary General of ICFTU-affiliated CISL, strongly criticized her, saying that "children have the right to play and go to school, instead of going to work".

In a special session with representatives of the international community, Lieke Wissink, aged 17, asked why the World Bank has said in recent years that some forms of child labour are not harmful, and need not be eradicated. World Bank Executive Director Ad Melkert responded that "all forms of child labour have to be eradicated", noting that while progress in implementing ILO convention 182, on the worst forms of child labour, was an important first step, far more needed to be done in ensuring that there was full implementation of the ILO's convention 138 on the minimum working age.

A report presented by the ILO calculated the cost of eradicating child labour over 20 years, as well as the economic benefits which would accrue from such an investment. According to the ILO, "child labour can be eliminated and replaced by universal education by the year 2020 at an estimated cost of US$760 billion, a benefit nearly seven times greater than the calculated costs."

Trade union delegates from Mauritania, Argentina, the UK, Nepal, the Netherlands, India, Albania, and the Global Union Federation Education International, briefed the congress on their experiences and approaches to ending child labour and getting children into school.

The congress was followed on Thursday by a march attended by thousands of children and adults including many from schools and trade unions near to Florence. The march passed through the streets of the city, culminating symbolically in front of the 600 year old Hospital of the Innocents, the site of one of the world's oldest homes for abandoned and orphaned children, in the Piazza Santissima Annunziata.

* According to ILO estimates, 246 million children worldwide are subject to child labour, including 179 million who are trapped in its worst and most hazardous forms.

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