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Child labour: Political will required

Child labour: Political will required
James Rose in Brisbane
14 Jun 05

Wider issues of empowerment, anti-discrimination, legal infrastructure and
solid laws are the backbone to reforms leading the cessation of forced and
bonded labour, says the ILO’s chief technical advisor in New Delhi
Julian Parr is most affected by the children: “When you see children in
areas such as debt bondage…they are modern slaves.” Parr is chief
technical advisor to the
ILO’s Sub-Regional Office For South Asia, based in Delhi.

His job exposes him to all forms of forced and bonded labour including the
heart-breaking scenes of children no higher than a cricket wicket lugging
heavy materials or choking on toxic fumes in the name of cheap commerce
and the seemingly perverse traditions of employee/employer relationships
across Asia’s vast spread.

He was at the sharp end of the ILO’s World Day against Child Labour on
June 12, which was intended to raise awareness of the plight of the
estimated 250 million child labourers around the world. Estimates suggest
that up to half of these are in India, some right outside Julian Parr’s

And he has a message for those who think there is an easy solution to the
problem. “We (the ILO) can’t eradicate bonded labour (via which many
children are employed), and we shouldn’t,” he argues. This may sound
defeatist to some, but Parr’s point is that the ILO is not there to, as he
puts it, “raid rice mills” or initiate name-and-shame programs. “There are
limited opportunities in boycotts and name-and-shame,” with regard to
stamping out child labour, he argues.

The ILO is not a body that has the wherewithal to run in that direction
anyway. It’s role, as a UN-based body, is to pressure governments to take
responsibility and to enact appropriate legislation.

But Parr’s views seem to go beyond the mere mouthing of
institutional-speak. They sound personal. He points out that NGO campaigns
often lead to the forms of labour being targeted simply moving to other
industries. Wider issues of empowerment, anti-discrimination, legal
infrastructure and solid laws are the backbone to reforms leading the
cessation of forced and bonded labour. This is where the ILO is focusing
its attention.

Asia dominates

Whatever the solution, the problem is enormous. According to the United
Nations’ children’s’ rights advocates UNICEF, there are over 127 million
child labourers in the Asia-Pacific region, by far the highest regional
number. UNICEF says that 19 per cent of all children in the Asia-Pacific
are “employed” in some form or other.

The UN organization classifies child labourers as “children below 12 years
of age working in any economic activities, those aged 12 to 14 years
engaged in harmful work, and all children engaged in the worst forms of
child labour.”

In India, children are generally employed in traditional or low-grade
informal sectors, such as brick kilns, rice mills, mines and quarries, and
in agriculture.

According to Julian Parr, the introduction of cash crops like sugar, tea
and cotton is also pushing growers to find cheaper ways to harvest and
package the commodities to keep in with global markets. In places like
India, Nepal and Pakistan, for instance, employing children has become an
economically viable, if morally questionable, alternative.

Often the biggest pressures faced by producers are from buyers. A recent
report produced by the South African-based group Action Aid claimed that
major tea buyers Hindustan Lever (a division of the giant Dutch
multinational Unilever) and locally based multinational Tata Tea, were
forcing producers in India to push prices lower. Their figures suggest
that average auction prices for Indian tea have been driven down
considerably since 1998, even as consumer prices have risen and
shareholder dividends at Hindustan Lever have more than trebled.

But, while not discrediting these findings, Julian Parr suggests such
links to major corporations may not always be so easy.

In south Asia, children are commonly employed, for instance, breaking
rocks for road projects, or gold and gem mining, and as domestic workers,
for instance. These occupations expose them to dangerous and unhealthy
conditions, extremely hard physical labour and all round wretchedness. But
more often than not, says Parr, they are not directly connected to major
multinationals as what they produce is usually for the domestic market.

Political will, please

The ILO argues therefore that focusing on governments is the means to the
most workable solution. Positive legal steps have already been taken in
India, Nepal and Pakistan for instance, some of which go beyond the ILO’s
own recommendations. Parr admits fair-trade pressures on buyers in the EU
and the US have driven this trend, but these in turn have generated by the
introduction of supply chain laws in those countries. This only confirms
the fundamental importance of not only good laws, but also good legal
infrastructures, he reiterates.

Legal systems in most countries in Asia are, he says, “moribund” rather
than “vibrant.” This means there is a need to build a regulatory framework
for lawyers and to identify where the laws are not being appropriately
applied. It’s common practice, for instance, for regional governments to
use the lack of prosecution of child labour misdemeanors as evidence that
its being cleared up. But, it’s only a clue to the lack of activism in
enforcing the often fairly stringent laws, says Parr.

Some might not agree with the ILO’s government-focused drive, arguing that
targeting the business sector is more direct and to the point. But Parr is
clear about the crux of the problem. “The key challenge,” he says, “is
engendering political will.”