Call to Link Trade With Children's Rights
Some 218 million of the world's children, most of them under 14, have to work, according to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Although the EU's main institutions have committed themselves to increasing access to education in poor countries so that children can go to school rather than have to find employment to supplement their families' meagre incomes, they lack a coherent strategy against child labour, according to a group who have examined the surrounding issues.
Richard Howitt, a British Labour member of the European Parliament (MEP), complained that there is no attempt being made to include legally binding provisions in the trade agreements that the EU signs with third countries, committing the latter to eliminate child labour.
"The European Union says all the right things about child labour," he said. "They never say 'we want child labour and we think it is acceptable'. But what do they do to enforce it (a requirement to end child labour)? There is a huge chasm between rhetoric and reality."
In a new study, the campaign group Stop Child Labour advocates that the EU should require that foreign countries commit to ending child labour within an agreed timeframe if their goods are to benefit from preferential access to the Union's market.
It advocates that trade preferences granted to Uzbekistan should be revoked. Human rights activists have gathered evidence that officials working for the Tashkent government force Uzbek children, some as young as seven, to pick cotton by hand during the annual harvest.
Gerard Oonk, author of the Stop Child Labour study, noted that poor countries are obliged to ratify international conventions on human and labour rights if they are to avail of a modified version of the EU's General System of Preferences for trade, known as GSP+. This scheme allows poor countries largely unfettered access to the EU's markets.
Yet Oonk said that the 15 countries now part of GSP+ include Colombia and Bolivia, both of which "have a large child labour problem." The EU is "giving the seal of approval to countries who don't deserve it," he added.
Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier from the Dutch anti-poverty group Hivos stressed that investing in schooling is the best way both to help end child labour and to ensure that economies can develop in the long term with the help of well-educated adults. "Every euro invested in education earns itself back seven times," she claimed.
Data published recently by the United Nations Education for All initiative suggests that some of the EU's most populous countries are not contributing adequately to efforts aimed at allowing every boy and girl complete primary schooling. The UN berated France and Germany for prioritising universities over primary schools in their development aid budgets. It also found that the volume of aid allocated to basic education in poor countries by Austria, Portugal and Spain had declined between 1999 and 2005.
Thijs Berman, a Dutch MEP, said the number of children affected by child labour has fallen by 20 percent over the past 15 years. Yet the problem still remains particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where children are frequently used to doing farm work.
He recommended that the EU's executive, the European Commission, should set up a 'hotline' which would gather information about European firms that use child labour at any stage during the manufacturing of their products. Companies that seek to benefit from European support schemes should be required to present proof that they do not exploit children, he said.
Dany Houngbedji, a Commission official, acknowledged that no projects aimed at addressing child labour are being supported under Investing in People, one of the main foreign aid programmes being managed by the EU's executive. Yet the "door is open" to proposals in this area, she said.
Ruth Casals, coordinator of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice in Brussels, said that there is a need for EU legislation obliging firms to guarantee they do not use child labour. "While parent companies reap the profits, it is not possible to make them legally responsible for human rights or environmental violations like child labour by their subsidiaries abroad," she explained. "The EU has a moral imperative in not allowing European companies to profit from human rights violations."
Cees van Dam, professor at King's College London, said that litigation against child labour is rare. But he stated that EU rules against unfair commercial practices may provide the possibility to take action against firms that exploit children. These rules forbid companies from giving a false picture of their activities. "If companies say they don't use child labour but in reality they do, then they are misleading consumers in Europe," he said.