Ending Abusive Child Labor: Global Strategies for a Global Problem

Testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus

Chairpersons Porter and Lantos, and Members of the Human Rights Caucus:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak before this distinguished body of Members whose commitment to the cause of human rights has been demonstrated repeatedly and insistently for many years on many causes in many countries.

It is encouraging that you have chosen to address the issue of child labor in today's hearing, for, as has been often noted, this practice blights the lives of more than 250 million children around the world. These are the children who are our planet's future. When they are deprived of an education or subjected to harsh and demeaning work in place of a childhood, our planet's future is stunted.

I am honored to participate today with Secretary Herman, who has given this Administration sterling leadership on the issue of child labor, and my good friend Tony Freeman of the ILO, which is the lead global agency involved in protecting children from the hazards of work.

As a part of the leadership team of the Global March Against Child Labor and as the co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, I am pleased to be able to offer a perspective on global efforts to end the commercial exploitation of children, and to encourage the U.S. Congress to play a critically important role in this effort.

As both the Secretary and Director Freeman have already noted, a very important new Convention is being negotiated in Geneva Switzerland at the International Labor Conference, which we encourage you to support and move for its rapid ratification. This new Convention addresses the "Worst Forms of Child Labor,' those practices so abhorrent to civilized people everywhere that there should be no problem in securing their universal condemnation. Such practices include forms of slavery and bondage, child prostitution or trafficking for sex or in the drug trade, and work that is hazardous to children's health, safety or morals. Under discussion at the Conference are whether to expand the definition to include work that deprives children of access to education or work that brings children into situations of military conflict. The Global March strongly advocates such expansion of the definition, lest we succeed only in declaring illegal those forms of abuse of children that are already illegal in virtually every country of the world. We believe strongly that the new Convention should expand the understanding and legal framework for the relationship between work and education. It should make it clear that depriving children of access to schooling that would otherwise be available to them condemns them and their families to an ongoing cycle of poverty generation after generation, and should therefore be clearly identified as one of the "worst forms of child labor."

Further, we strongly believe that the Convention must condemn the increasingly common practice of involving children in warfare, both by states and by insurgent movements. Throughout Africa boys and girls as young as twelve and thirteen are dragooned into soldiering, or are used as porters and human land mine detectors to protect older soldiers from danger. Girls, forced into service with military units, are subjected to horrifying sexual abuse. While it may be that, in the strictest sense, outlaw military insurgencies where these practices are most common are outside the influence of international law, that should not deter us from declaring, as a global community, the kinds of practices that are universally condemned.

The United States has an important leadership role to play in establishing these new norms, and the visit by President Clinton to the International Labor Conference next week is a strong signal of our intent to exercise that leadership. However, it is ironic that the United States has also been one of the leading countries expressing reservations about some of the most important elements of the new convention, namely, on the definitions of hazardous work and on the issue of children in the military.

The reason for this caution is clear and obvious: The U.S. government does not want the new Convention to run afoul of current U.S. law and thereby be incapable of ratification by the U.S. Congress. There are two areas of concern: the age for recruitment into the military and the laws regulating agricultural child labor.

First, regarding military service: U.S. law allows recruitment into the military at the age of 17 ½ years, while the new Convention defines children as up age 18. The U.S. delegation in Geneva has reportedly offered to support language in Art. 3(a) of the Convention that would ban "forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict," taking consideration of this out from Art. 3(d), which defines hazardous work. This effort narrows the of conflict from being considered as hazardous work to direct attention solely on the means by which children are secured for this work. While this language would bring the Convention into compliance with U.S. law, it would not, we fear, adequately resolve the problem faced by more than 300,000 thousand of children in Africa and elsewhere that are not only dragooned by force into military service, but are also actively recruited under terms that would sometimes be difficult to define as to whether they were forced, compulsory, or voluntary. Further, it would not prevent the compulsory involvement of children in armed conflict if their recruitment was voluntary. We strongly believe that such loopholes ought to be closed, so that it is clear in the Convention that children don't belong on battlefields, even as a result of so-called voluntary recruitment.

That might require the U.S. to examine how important it is to insist on our allowing children onto the battlefield before age 18. Is it unthinkable for the Congress to revise U.S. law in such a way as to allow recruitment and training for military action at the current age of 17 ½ years, but to reserve combat duty to those above age 18? There may not be an easy, politically palatable solution to this issue, but for the sake of hundreds of thousands of children elsewhere under much more extreme conditions, it is a matter of urgent consideration. There cannot be a very large number of U.S. minors who would be affected by such a minor change, and it is hard to imagine that it would impact the combat-readiness of U.S. forces. It would, however, put the U.S. squarely on the side of protection of children globally, instead of being seen internationally as a state willing to sacrifice other nations' children for the sake of a minor aspect of its own domestic military service law.

The second issue on which the U.S. has exercised a cautionary role in Geneva is on the definition of hazardous work in Art. 3 of the proposed Convention, but I am pleased to note that in some way the immediate problem has been resolved in the language that is now before the body there. The language currently proposed tracks the language of Convention 138, which the U.S. has not ratified. That language (Art. 3(d) currently defines the worst forms to child labor to include "work, which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children."

U.S. caution on this point is due to our own failure to ratify the most basic ILO Convention on child labor, No. 138. And, as you are familiar, there are significant reason why the U.S. has not ratified convention 138. U.S. laws relating to agricultural child labor are clearly below international standards. It is, for example, legal if not physically possible, for a six-year-old child to drive a tractor or operate any kind of machinery on a U.S. farm, while it is illegal for a child of 16 to operate a paper bailer in a grocery story. We have immense discrepancies in U.S. law that have been allowed as concessions to agribusiness. Consequently, our largest population of children endangered in the workplace is our farm children. Farmwork is the single largest cause of fatalities for youth workers. This involves both the children of farm owners working on their own family farms, and even more significantly, the hundreds of thousands of children of migrant farmworkers who work alongside their parents under conditions that threaten their health and endanger their future, due to pesticide exposure, long hours, inadequate sanitary conditions, and most important, inadequate wages for parents that cause them to recruit their children into work at the expense of their development and education. The result: 63% of all farmworker children do not complete compulsory education in this country.

A study on Convention 138 which the International Labor Rights Fund completed two years ago for the Department of Labor concluded that:

"There are serious and verifiable conflicts between the requirements of ILO Convention 138 and federal and state laws governing child labor in the U.S. . . . The major problem with respect to federal law, specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), is the broad exclusions from coverage that leaves major areas of required regulation under the Convention unregulated by federal law. The most serious example of this is agricultural labor.

The study also found that "the problems with real and potential conflicts with ILO Convention 138 and US law multiply, as could be expected, when state laws are added to the equation. There are many objectively verifiable conflicts, ranging from the failure of some states to even have an adequate policy to prohibit child labor to complete exclusion from regulation areas of employment that the Convention does address with specific requirements."

If the United States wishes to exercise leadership at the global level on the issue of child labor, and there is abundant evidence that it does, it is imperative to address the contradictions in U.S. domestic law which prevent it from taking bold steps or challenging other states to improve their practices.

The U.S. Congress is in a position to exercise this leadership by re-examining elements of U.S. law that prevent our ratifying the most important international conventions, and that also press us into a role of trying to weaken new conventions so that they are ratifiable by the U.S. without challenging our existing weak laws. This is not the way for the world's richest power to position itself for moral leadership on the question of child labor.

A number of initiatives have been introduced over the years to address these problems, including Congressman Lantos' "Young American Worker Bill of Rights" and other bills, but they have not acquired the political momentum necessary to overcome resistance from industries that want less, rather than more, regulation. But if we are to deserve the mantle of international leadership to which we aspire on ending abuse of children in the workplace, we must begin at home.

We strongly urge the definition of hazardous work in the new Convention to be kept strong, specific and clear, and not to be weakened in such a way as to suggest that some hazardous work is acceptable for the reason that the U.S. has allowed it. That would be a shameful conclusion to the strong and courageous efforts this Administration has taken to make the elimination of abusive child labor its cause.

This matter is clearly in Congress' hands, and I am sure that you will find the Labor Department your ally, as will be the NGO world of children's advocates.

The new convention deserves your strong support and your rapid action to encourage the Senate to ratify it when it is presented. Traditional U.S. reluctance to ratify a convention that may conflict with U.S. law should not prevent U.S. support of this significant opportunity to lead the world in the fight against child labor. Your effort to change U.S. law so that it would satisfy the new Convention is the most important way in which you, as our legislators, can play a significant role in protecting the world's children. No one should be able to say that the U.S. is unable to provide protection for its own children that the rest of the nations of the world are willing to provide for their children.

Thank you for allowing me to speak this afternoon. The International Labor Rights Fund, the Global March Against Child Labor, and the Child Labor Coalition stand ready to work with you in any way possible to advance this cause.