6 May 2002


Press Briefing


Launching "A Future Without Child Labour", the International Labour Organization's most comprehensive study on the subject, ILO Director General Juan Somavia told correspondents that 246 million children -- one in every six children aged 5 to 17 -- were involved in child labour.

The study helped move the world away from denial and towards awareness, he continued.  Mr. Somavia was joined by John Sweeney, President of the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Marcela Malbunes, Vice-President of Human Rights for Phillips-Van Heusen, and Zohreh Tabatabai, Director of Communications, ILO.  Also present were children who were formerly involved in the worst forms of child labour.

Mr. Somavia emphasized three issues in order to resolve the problem.  First, if parents did not have access to employment and income generation, inevitably that would put pressure on children to work.  Second, crises of any sort, whether it be unemployment or armed conflict, affected children and pushed them into child labour.  Third, the community must have the necessary desire to move forward. 

In the end, he continued, each society had to decide that it did not want child labour in their community or country.  The objective should be a progressive move towards "child-labour-free zones".  The ILO was promoting the idea of time-bound programmes, so that countries themselves could set dates to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.  At the same time, the ILO was promoting, through its tripartite structure, community action to combat the problem. 

The American labour movement, noted Mr. Sweeney, had a long history of fighting the exploitation of children in the workplace and providing education for all children.  Although United States laws now banned almost all forms of child labour, the practice did continue, primarily in agricultural fields and sweatshops.  The Report highlighted the simple truth that no economy benefited from exploiting and not educating its children; no economy benefited from impoverishing its working men and women; and no culture or creed blessed the jailing or murder of children seeking to organize for their freedom.

The United States, he said, was proud to have ratified ILO Convention No. 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999) shortly after its adoption.  "We will continue to strive to build a world where children stretch their minds in classrooms instead of straining their muscles in mines, mills, factories and fields." 

Recognizing the need to strengthen the ILO's ability to address credible violations of workers' rights, United States’ business spearheaded and strongly supported the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, stated Ms. Malbunes.  Moreover, the United States business community had supported ILO efforts to eradicate the most egregious forms of child labour since the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour began in 1992. 

The Programme's most noteworthy success, she continued, was the initiative to eradicate and provide alternatives to child workers in the soccer ball industry

in Pakistan.  Thousands of children had been removed from work and given the opportunity for education.  The adults in their families were now sewing the soccer balls, which ensured their livelihood.  The experience gained from that programme was being used to address child labour in other regions.

While one single company would not be able to solve the problem of child labour in a region or country, she added, it was clear that its responsible, committed involvement would be a significant step forward.  However, companies must draw from international conventions, such as ILO Conventions 138 (Minimum Age Convention, 1973) and 182, from multilateral efforts and collaboration to further the cause and ensure ethical business. 

In response to a question, Mr. Somavia noted that in terms of volume, Asia had the largest number of child labourers -- about 127 million.  Africa had the highest percentage, with about one third of children involved in different forms of child labour.  In terms of sectors, 70 per cent of child labourers were involved in agriculture. 

Asked how the ILO worked with families to eliminate child labour,

Mr. Somavia said that incomes were generated for families provided that the children went to school.  Child labour projects tended to have the same format -- take children out of a particular activity, such as bricklaying, and try to find an activity for the parents. 

On the issue of trafficking, he said that the ILO had been able to study the situation in West Africa, which had led to the decision by those countries to take action.  Also, the upheavals in Eastern Europe had produced different forms of trafficking, including those involving children. 

Mr. Sweeney added that the greatest contribution the ILO was making was raising awareness on the issue worldwide and getting countries to recognize that they had a problem. 

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For information media. Not an official record.