International Labour Office

Check Against Delivery




Mr. Juan Somavia
Director-General of the International Labour Office

to the
Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children

New York, 9 May 2002



Mr. President, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, 180 million children went to work in the worst forms of child labour; in dangerous or hazardous work risking permanent damage to themselves, even death.
More than eight million of those children are victims of modern slavery and of sexual exploitation; they are used and abused in illicit activities and in war. These are far from being the most widespread forms of child labour. But they constitute a particularly vicious exploitation of their childhood.

Another 66 million children who went to work today were simply too young to be working even though they were not in the worst forms of work.

Altogether, some 246 million children went to work today.

The ILO has now compiled the most comprehensive report ever on child labour. It was launched earlier this week and sheds new light on these millions of child labourers who, dispersed and powerless, had long remained invisible. Imagine a whole population nearly the size of the United States remaining unseen and unheard!

Clearly the Report signals a massive problem. But it also speaks of progress. We have gone beyond denial to acknowledgement and awareness.

Governments and societies have acknowledged the problem. Parliamentarians, employers' and workers' organizations, NGOs and others are also taking up the fight.

Citizens, consumers, school children, college students want to act. Communities are waking up. Many people want to do something about it. The ILO's own work on child labour - research, standard setting, advocacy and technical assistance - has seen a major expansion. We are working with 75 countries.

We are off the starting block but far from the finishing line. There is urgency to act now, for now we know that most child labour occurs in its worst forms.

First let's attack the root causes. Child labour is not a personal preference. Parents do not want to condemn their children to a life of hardship, to deprive them of a
future. They want opportunities for a decent family life. They don't have them. We need economic policies - that can deliver decent work for parents and good education for children.

Second, the fact is that we will not get rid of child labour just through individual development projects and programmes. They are important because they show that it can be done. Stopping child labour starts with moral outrage. It demands personal commitment. It also demands a societal engagement. A society that aims to be free of child labour must have courage and creativity. It must connect its policies and institutions with the security of children, their families and their communities.

Third, an international community that wants a world free of child labour must make it a priority of all international organizations. All policy advice coming from international organizations should be audited with respect to their impact on the worst forms of child labour.

Fourth, such commitments must be founded on integrated family-centred strategies that provide escape routes out of poverty; and safety nets to deal with crises. I believe that the present model of globalization contributes to weakening family structures through rising levels of uncertainty and insecurity that affects most the weakest.

Let me repeat, we must build such strategies around getting parents into jobs and children into school. Decent work for parents is one of the best guarantees of security and stability for families, communities and societies. It is a key route out of poverty. We must be prepared to make it an explicit goal of national policies and international cooperation.

Finally, we can move forward by progressively establishing child labour free zones; child labour free enterprises, child labour free communities, child labour free cities, child labour free regions, child labour free countries. They all come together in the ILO's Time Bound National Programmes to eliminate the worst forms of child labour within a given period of time set by each country. I want to formally invite all countries to agree on such a programme.

They demand a strong political commitment and national ownership linking action against child labour to poverty alleviation, to the provision of basic education to children and work and income to parents. It does not refer to light work by children that does not affect their health, integrity or formal education.

Countries ready to make this kind of commitment merit support. The international community can provide such support through the policies it shapes and the resources it commits.

If we can all agree on such an approach, our chances of making this world fit for children will be vastly improved. We must never forget that child labour is about adults using and exploiting children; that it is adults tolerating the abuse of children. Stopping it is the responsibility of adults. This is the test of intergenerational solidarity. Let us live up to our responsibility.

In the season in which we are preparing for the World Cup we should all give a red card to child labour.