at Conference on Child Labour, The Hague, February 25, 2002

Pro-poor growth is best remedy
for child labour


"Stimulating pro-poor economic growth is by far the best remedy for child labour. And poverty is no excuse for a lack of political will to do so", Dutch minister for Development Cooperation, Eveline Herfkens, said in a speech on child labour in The Hague, Monday February 25. The minister took a firm stand against trade sanctions as a tool for outlawing child labour: "There are no guarantees that sanctions will reduce the incidence of child labour. Indeed, they can hamper the sustainable economic growth countries need in order to reduce child labour."


All over the world 250 million children are going to work instead of school. Robbed of their chance for education most of these children are condemned to lifelong poverty. They work on farms, in mines, in factories, in shops and as house servants. Some are forced into prostitution and armed conflicts. In Tanzania 3,4 million out of 12.1 million children under the age of 18 work on a regular basis. In El Salvador 440.000 out of 2,2 million under 18 have jobs. In Nepal about 42 percent of children form 5 to 14 years old work.
The widespread problem of child labour was one of the issues on the agenda of the UN Special Session on Children, which was postponed last fall after the attacks on New York. This may we get a second chance and 250 million child labourers also will get a second chance.
This conference in The Hague should have taken place well after the Special Session on Children. Now it is the other way round. We will take the results of this conference with us to New York. Because action against child labour is one of the most important issues on the Special Session's agenda.
ILO Convention 182 is one of the cornerstones of international policy. It outlaws the worst forms of child labour such as slavery, prostitution and child trafficking. Now that the Netherlands has ratified it, it is in force in 116 countries. That is quite some achievement in two and a half years and I hope for more commitments in New York. After all, Convention 182 is the least the world can agree on.
We all know that Convention 182 is no more than a first step towards banning child labour in all its forms. We shouldn't turn a blind eye to all its less serious manifestations. They also prevent children making the maximum investment in their own future, and therefore deserve our full attention. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, another cornerstone of our policy, rightly insists that in all policy affecting children we should put children first.
Labour inspectors' experience and knowledge are vital if we are to implement and enforce these agreements. Over the next few days, the inspectorates of fifty countries will be looking in depth at practical issues they have encountered. What can Labour Inspectorates do to help monitor and enforce the rules on child labour? How can cooperation be improved, between inspectorates and with others? How can monitoring and compliance be improved? What can be done about corrupt or incompetent Labour Inspectorates?
I don't want to go into all those questions this morning, important though they are. I want now to draw your attention to some other vital allies in our battle against child labour. Because the Labour Inspectorate can never be more than one link in the chain.


Our first allies are the counterparts of labour inspectors: education inspectors. In fact, these allies include everyone who has anything to do with primary education in developing countries, like parents, teachers and the children themselves. Child labour and education are interconnected. The better the school system and the lower the costs, the more children will go to school and the less child labour there will be. The evidence is compelling. For example, education is compulsory in the Indian state of Kerala, with the result that hardly any children go to work. A child cannot be at school and in a factory at the same time.
Poor education systems encourage children to drop out of school and disappear into the world of child labour. Children have even been known to turn to prostitution because other forms of child labour were banned and they couldn't go to school. It must be very distressing for labour inspectors when attempts to crack down on a problem cause even more misery for the children involved.
It need not be like that. In Bangladesh, for example, a scheme has been set up to give 20,000 working children from the slums an education outside the normal school system. Simply banning all child labour would be disastrous for their families and the local economy. Informal education of this kind can be a reasonable short-term alternative on the road to formal education. But it must be combined with acceptable working conditions to protect the children's emotional and physical well-being.
Children with no proper education fall into a black hole. A good education system has a magnetic attraction that can draw them out of the hole and into school. And the pull of good education can be strengthened if there is a hard push away from child labour. Sadly, that connection is not always fully recognised. Child labour programmes often operate in complete isolation from education programmes. Bringing them together is a challenge for everyone involved at both national and international levels. I want therefore to support the ILO and IPEC as they give the relationship between child labour and education more shape. I have decided to allocate 2.5 million euros for a project to this end, on top of the partnership programme we started with ILO this year. In our regular contributions promoting basic education in developing countries, increasing from 167 million euros in 2001, we will also focus more sharply on the relationship with child labour.
Just to mention some examples. To date more than 100 action programmes have been implemented in Nepal. And so far nearly 12.000 working children have received educational support and their families have been provided with alternative economic opportunities. In Tanzania some 40 IPEC-sponsored projects have withdrawn thousands of children from work and provided them with education, raised awareness, trained labour inspectors and promoted legislation. In El Salvador 130 children were removed from garbage scavenging in a dumpsite, 2500 others involved in the production of fireworks received protection.

Trade unions

The second allies on my list are the trade unions. It is a well-known fact that strong trade unions significantly reduce the likelihood of child labour. Experience has shown that child labour is almost unknown in sectors where trade union rights are respected. Trade unions fight for higher pay and better working conditions. Higher wages for adults lead to higher family incomes for the poor, reducing the need for children to work.
The reverse is also true. Cracking down on child labour can often improve the position of adults on the labour market. Children in work depress wages, and that weakens the trade unions' negotiating position. Child labour must, therefore, be seen in relation to adults' working conditions and a general respect for basic labour norms. Because trade union activity is so important in combating child labour, I increased my budget allocation for trade union work by more than 20 per cent. It now stands at 38 million euros.
I am pleased to see that the Dutch trade union movement realises it cannot manage without NGOs and civil society. Most child labour, probably as much as 90 per cent, takes place in the informal sector. Trade unions have precious little influence on wages and working conditions in the informal economy and I suspect that labour inspectors, too, find it difficult to make much headway. Here is a challenge for the trade unions, in partnership with international and national organisations. And they will also need the expertise of the NGOs.


I cannot yet quite count employers among our allies. However, attitudes among foreign investors in poor countries are improving. Partly of their own accord and partly thanks to pressure from public opinion and tougher legislation.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were completely revised in June 2000. They are only voluntary, but there is considerable moral pressure to abide by them. They are currently the best way we can encourage businesses to accept their social responsibility. They cover the whole range of business's responsibility to society, including trade union rights, training, technology transfer, fair competition and payment of taxes. They thus go much further than the nine principles of the UN Global Compact.
As regards child labour the Guidelines say, "enterprises should, within the framework of applicable law, regulations and prevailing labour relations and employment practices, contribute to the effective abolition of child labour". And as regards responsibilities in the supply chain they say, "encourage, where applicable, business partners, including suppliers and subcontractors, to apply principles of corporate conduct compatible with the Guidelines". This obligation is very important because most child labour does not take place in multinationals' factories but among their subcontractors, often in the informal sector.
So it happens that child workers receive 14 cents for each pair of running shoes they make; the subcontractor sells those to an international company for 14 euro; the company charges the retailer 29 euro, while the consumer finally pays 64 euro for the pair of shoes. These Guidelines apply all round the world. Any company which does not stick to them will find no favour with my ministry. It will have no access to our programmes. This is an attempt to give the Guidelines teeth. Only milk teeth so far, but we're working on it.
We are also working to raise awareness of the Guidelines among civil-society organisations in developing countries. They can help to keep companies on the alert and flag up any abuses.


One group of people I do not consider our allies are those who seek to outlaw child labour completely using trade sanctions. I don't question their motives or commitment, but I think they are going about things the wrong way. Labour norms must not produce a new form of protectionism. We must not isolate complete countries and regions because child labour is found there. That will not work. There are no guarantees that sanctions will reduce the incidence of child labour. Indeed, they can hamper the sustainable economic growth countries need in order to reduce child labour. The fact is that stimulating pro-poor economic growth is by far the best remedy for child labour.
Banning child labour completely would be unrealistic, and in the short-term would do no good. The main cause of child labour is poverty. And we cannot disguise that hard fact with conventions and legislation and sanctions. But poverty must not be used as an excuse for allowing child labour. The India Committee of the Netherlands made that point in its Internet debate, and I agree entirely.
I would like to stress once again that our aim is to eradicate the worst forms of child labour as quickly as possible. And that we are doing our utmost to reduce its other forms, which are also appalling, through a range of programmes. Preventing child labour is first and foremost the duty of governments, but also of business and society as a whole. Poverty is no excuse for a lack of political will.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - March 13, 2002