Combat Exploitative Child Labor with Human Rights

June 28, 2010

On June 8, 2010, I attended the “Working Together to Combat Child Labor” conference in Washington, DC.  The meeting was organized by the US Departments of State and Labor to convene high-level U.S. officials and representatives of labor, business, and non-governmental organizations to discuss effective strategies and policies to combat exploitative child labor around the world.  Below is the text of the speech I gave on a panel entitled “Making Rights a Reality”:

I would like to thank the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs for co-hosting this conference and for giving me the opportunity to be part of this important and urgent conversation.

I want to start by acknowledging that many of you in this room have more expertise than either I or Amnesty, as an organization, in combating child labor.  What AI has is some 50 years of experience of fighting for human rights.  What I hope we can contribute to this discussion is our understanding of the critical place of human rights in any effective effort to end child labor.

Last month, the ILO warned that progress in ending the worst forms of child labor has slowed down, and that the global economic downturn is likely to make the situation worse.  There is, however, nothing inevitable about this trend.  As the ILO’s Constance Thomas noted:

Most child labor is rooted in poverty. The way to tackle the problem is clear. We must ensure that all children have the chance of going to school, we need social protection systems that support vulnerable families – particularly at times of crisis – and we need to ensure that adults have a chance of decent work. These measures, combined with effective enforcement of laws that protect children, provide the way forward.

This is also “the way” required by the human rights norms, standards, and laws by which virtually every government is bound.  Yet, the truth is that for far too long and far too often, child labor, like the poverty in which it is rooted, has been treated by governments, international bodies, and NGOs – including my own for many years – as primarily, if not exclusively, an issue for development agencies or specialized labor organizations, but not necessarily a human rights issue. Human rights have often been seen, at best as an add-on, at worst as an obstacle to development.  It was in part to contribute to changing this, AI has launched a global campaign called “Demand Dignity” to combat the human rights abuses that force men, women and children into poverty and keep them there.  The campaign aims to make human rights integral and central to the fight against poverty and poverty related practices like child labor.

Why is this so important? What do human rights bring to the fight against child labor?

The human rights starting point is that child labor violates the enjoyment of the full range of children’s rights.  Viewed from the human rights lens, solutions must therefore be comprehensive and multi-disciplinary, and guided at all times by the best interests of the child.  Child labor, for example, cannot be stopped if the result is a significant worsening of the right to an adequate income or is not replaced by education.  The child has a right not only to be free from economic exploitation but to have education and development in keeping with his or her dignity.  All these rights are indivisible and must be addressed if a genuine solution is to be found to the ugly phenomenon we are discussing.

Secondly, a human rights approach recognizes that poverty and child labor result not just from a lack of income but from a lack of power and a lack of justice. Any genuine solution needs to address root causes including structural forms of exclusion and discrimination that allow exploitation to flourish.  As Myron Weiner has argued in looking at child labor in India, the failure to provide education for millions of children results not from low per capita income as much as from the beliefs of those in power regarding the proper place of poor people and their children. Human rights require a rigorous analysis of discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity and economic status and developing solutions that not only combat discriminatory attitudes and practices but empower those who are most marginalized.  Empowerment means not only looking at outcomes but on how those outcomes will be achieved.  It means focusing on the active participation of the most impacted by abuses and the communities round them. This means seeing children and their larger communities as partners and not simply as abstract “target groups” or aid recipients.

Finally, human rights demands accountability and enforcement of laws.  Human rights demands that those most at risk are protected under the law, that the laws are enforced and that victims of abuses and their communities have access to institutions with the power to ensure remedy when those laws are broken.  Making this a reality requires not only a serious investment of resources, but the creation, through national and international pressure, of the political will, to use those resources to create justice systems aimed at serving the poor.  This is an enormous challenge.  It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the human rights movement.

The generation of the kind of political will needed to meet this challenge requires us all working together.

In practice, the obstacles to making our recommendations a reality are formidable.  Last fall, Amnesty released a report on the plight of child domestic workers in Haiti.  According to UNICEF estimates, in 2007, there were more than 100,000 girls aged between 6 and 17 years old working as domestic servants in Haiti, living in conditions the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has described as a “modern form of slavery”.  Their situation, as you undoubtedly know, is not unique.  Worldwide more girls are involved in domestic work than any other form of child labor and domestic workers are often excluded from the protection of national laws.  Most of these children come from rural families living in poverty who are unable to care for them.  They are sent to the cities in the hope their life chances will be improved.  In reality, they end up working long hours in exchange not for wages but from some shelter and food.  Most do not receive any education at all.  Many are subjected to sexual violence based on their total dependence.  Some flee and end up living on the streets.

AI has called on Haitian authorities – and on the international donor community to support the Haitian authorities to this end – to take a number of steps to address this problem, including:

These would be important steps but without other steps which would allow these girls to enjoy the right to education and an adequate income and the right to justice they would mean very little.

The United States could and should play a leading role in promoting and enforcing these rights, in Haiti and around the world, advancing, among others, the Convention on the Rights of the Child as a key instrument in the fight against child labor.

To do this it would first need itself to ratify and implement the convention instead of being one of only two countries in the world that has failed to do so.  It would then need to adopt itself a holistic approach to human rights and to develop and support programs and solutions, developed with the participation of impacted communities, which are aimed at the full enjoyment of all rights.  It could work for stronger mechanisms to enforce these rights including urging national and international corporations to adopt codes of conduct aimed at preventing any aspect of their operations that contributes to the violation of the rights of children.

If this conference is a step toward this kind of human rights approach based on the indivisibility of all rights – one which could enable the formation of a movement bringing together development, labor, security and other groups to fight child labor in a way never seen before – then this conference will prove to have been an important one indeed.