ter gelegenheid van de aanbieding van 60.000 handtekeningen aan (toenmalig) minister Melkert van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid tijdens de Amsterdam Child Labour Conference in februari 1997.

Dear chairman and other distinguished guests,

Today I have the privilege to speak on behalf of ten Dutch organizations from a very broad spectre of our society: the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, the Dutch Teacher's Union, Unicef Netherlands as well as NGO's representing almost all denominations and social sectors of society. Some of them, like UNICEF and Children at Risk, have already worked on the issue of child labour for many years. Most of them have done so for at least the last three years. The ten of us are funding anti-child labour projects, doing research and advocacy work on the issue, working on fair and child-labour free trade and taking up the issue in international fora.

Last year we felt that the time had come to make a strong and joint appeal to the Dutch public, to our government and the European Union. We urge them to contribute whatever they can to the elimination of child labour and the right to primary education for every child.
That's when we decided to start our campaign 'Sign Against Child Labour'. Since September last year we have collected around 60.000 signatures from every part of our country and from all walks of life: school children and their teachers, church groups, union groups, buyers of fair-trade products, more than 200 officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs, but also workers in departments stores, housewives, senior citizens and a newspaper boy who distributed the cards with the newspaper. We even received signatures from Belgium, Germany and Portugal.

Minister Melkert of Social Affairs signs petition against child labour (photographs: Henk Boon)

As organizations and individuals we share the conviction that child labour should be abolished. There can be no compromise on the internationally accepted right of children to be free from labour that interferes with good primary education. Or from labour that is detrimental to a child's well-being. Not all the work children do is necessarily harmful. Work may even be a positive element in a child's development.
We differ however with those who say that children have the fundamental right to work, because in most cases this so-called right interferes strongly with the above-mentioned rights, especially education. Child labour also takes away jobs from adults, who dó have a right to work. We also differ with those who feel it is a supreme expression of emancipation when children say that they want to work and that we should allow them to do so. It is a travesty of values and a cynical acceptance of social and political failure to tell children who are in fact forced or driven to work, that they have the right to work and that this right should not be taken away from them.

We are deeply convinced that child labour does not arise primarily because of poverty itself, but because of the exploitation of poverty. There are several countries and regions, like the state of Kerala in India, which are poor in terms of national income but where most children are going to school. However when poverty is exploited by the powerful because labour laws are hardly implemented and when the state does not give priority to good primary education for every child, child labour is bound to occur. Jobs are given to children because they are cheap and malleable, while employers make profit by not hiring adults for better wages.

The main instrument to fight child labour is free, quality, accessible and compulsory education for every child.
We therefore urge our government and the EU to support more programmes for primary education - as they are already doing to some extent. At the same time we want them to support in-build strategies to see to it that also children working at present are enroled and retained in regular schools. Very often primary education programmes do not include social mobilization and community programmes to reach out to marginalized working children - especially girls working at home - as well as their parents. There are several examples where local bodies and NGO's have succeeded in weaning away even the poorest children from work and getting them into schools.
Part-time non-formal education after work can never be a long-term solution for working children as it increases their burden and robs them from the right to equal education-opportunities compared with children who attend full-time schools. It can however act as a transitionary measure to prepare them for formal education.

There has been much talk about sanctions and boycotts. We do feel that socially responsible trade can be of some help to eradicate child labour, but we are stressing the positive approach. Most of us are working intensively on fair trade and the promotion of trade marks for consumer-products made without child labour and under decent labour conditions. There is now a well-functioning trade-mark for carpets without child labour which is supported by many groups in the EU and the USA: Rugmark-carpets from Nepal and India.
Governments and the European Union can do a lot to support these private initiatives, by giving special trade incentives to those products which are certified to be made without child labour. The General System of (trade) Preferences for developing countries of the European Union makes this possible from next year onwards. The conditions have to be decided on this year. We urge the EU to lift import duties for child labour free and fair trade products and leave out no developing country for protectionist reasons.
We were happy to note that the Dutch parliament has last November asked our government to seek support in the European Union for lowering the import duties for child labour free products. As a result our government very recently came out with a policy paper to promote the import of products made under 'responsible ecological en social conditions', including the absence of child labour.

There are of course extreme forms of child labour that have to be eradicated immediately. Strengthening ILO Convention 29 against forced labour and a strong new convention against the most intolerable forms of child labour can be important instruments to reach that goal. Any new convention on extreme forms of child labour should however be in integral part of broader policies and time-bound programmes to abolish child labour totally in line with Convention 138 of the ILO and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We are asking our government and the European Union to urge for strong monitoring mechanisms to back up a new convention on child labour. We feel that such a convention ànd the existing convention on forced labour are so essential to fundamental human rights, that they should have the same status as the convention on freedom of organization. That is: their ratification should be a pre-condition for states to be a member of the ILO. Thank you for your attention.

Gerard Oonk
(India Committee of the Netherlands)
on behalf of the campaign Sign Against Child Labour

February 1997


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Landelijke India Werkgroep - 1 oktober 1999