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Saving the children with songs and light refreshments

If the conversation at the ILO's ‘high level panel discussion on child labour’ had lived up to its name the world might have started to make progress on this important issue. Español

Meeting of the IPEC International Steering Committee for the World Day Against Child Labour. 103rd Session of the International Labour Conference. Geneva, 10th of June 2014. Pouteau/Crozet/Albouy/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

On 8 June, during this year’s International Labour Conference (ILC), I attended the High Level Panel Discussion on Child Labour which marked the ILO’s annual World Day Against Child Labour (12 June). This year’s theme: ‘End child labour in supply chains – It’s everyone’s business!’ Unfortunately, it was business as usual.

As is usual during an event on children’s rights, some sort of entertainment was provided – this time it took up a good 30 of the 90 minutes that were assigned to the event. As promised by the flyer promoting the panel discussion, the ILO delegates were treated to a light refreshment and a musical performance by Choeur pour l’Abolition du Travail des Enfants, a group of artists from Côte d'Ivoire that raises awareness on child labour among the Ivorian public. The chorus of their song ‘My Child’ ends with the line “my child, you are better than all the filthy gold that crushes you and makes you bleed”. It was clear we were talking ‘worst forms’ from there on.

As usual, the ILO’s director general, currently Guy Ryder, opened the discussion. His statement echoed one of the targets set by Sustainable Development Goal 8: securing the prohibition and elimination of all forms of child labour by 2025. Making the target, he argued, requires a good policy mix (free and quality education, good laws, and social protection), jobs for parents and securing the worker’s rights to organise – as long as those workers are not children of course.

During last year’s event, Ryder emphasised that the venue in which the discussion took place – Room XX at the UN Palais des Nations – is often used by the UN Human Rights Council, and that it was symbolic of how important the the eradication of child labour is as a human rights issue. This year there was more symbolism as he left the panel after 30 minutes, right in the middle of the discussion. Perhaps because a more important human rights issue needed his attention, perhaps because this years’ panel lacked a heavy weight speaker – like last year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi – that obliged him to stay to the end. Who knows?

The phrase ‘the time for excuses is over’ was often repeated, yet the unions pointed their finger at the employers, and the employers blamed the governments.

The other panellists also only had a few minutes for introducing themselves and their opening statements. Although they were not helped by the format of the discussion, some managed to take its superficiality to another level. Before announcing that Canada would ratify the 1973 (!) ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age, the Canadian Minister of Labour, MaryAnn Mihychuk, thanked the director general for ‘turning her on’ after he pushed the button of her microphone. It was a gaff that, according to the moderator, deserved applause. Later on Andrews Addoquaye Tagoe, representing a workers union from Ghana and the Global March Against Child Labour, made the hundreds of delegates collectively shout ‘away!’ after he said ‘child labour’. Other than that it was very much the same old song. The phrase ‘the time for excuses is over’ was often repeated, yet the unions pointed their finger at the employers, and the employers blamed the governments.

As usual, local children were asked to make some art about child labour. This time students from the International School of Geneva – conveniently located literally across the street from the ILO – made a video, some posters, and the following poem that was handed out to the delegates.

A Child.
I have right, I have duties.
I have an education, I have a job.
I go to school, I go to work.
I could get expelled, I could get fired.
I hold a pencil, I hold a hammer.
I receive flowers, I grow flowers.
I buy clothes, I make clothes.
I wear diamonds, I mine diamonds.
I have friends, I have colleagues.
I play with siblings, I work with my siblings.
I eat chocolate, I grow chocolate.
I have a teacher, I have a boss.
I write, I sew.
I wear shoes, I make shoes.
I get an allowance, I get a salary.
I work for my grades, I work to support.
I am a child, I am a child.

It is the type of rhetoric you expect from a young student who learned about child labour only from brochures, videos and songs – and it is understandable. However, one would hope that the ILO and its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) would go beyond this kind of stereotyping in order to address the multitude of complex issues that lay behind its contested term ‘child labour’. Unfortunately is seems that it is just the kind of language that the organisation is eager to adopt into its mainstream anti-child labour campaigns, which often make life more difficult for those working children who are trying to build of a life with dignity.

Finally, as usual, a big announcement was made. Last year Kailash Satyarthi launched the ILO’s 50 for Freedom campaign, in order to get 50 countries to ratify the 2014 Protocol to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention (so far six countries have done so). This year, Argentina’s minister of labour, Jorge Triaca, confirmed that his country will host the 5th International Child Labour Conference in October 2017. Let us hope that the organisers will take the issue more seriously and devote to it the kind of substantial and inclusive discussions that it so desperately needs.

Fieldwork for this report was conducted within the framework of the research project ‘Living rights in translation. An interdisciplinary approach of working children's rights’ which is funded by the Specialised Committee Interdisciplinary Research of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) (Project no. CR11I1_156831).

About the author

Edward van Daalen is a PhD researcher in law at the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies of the University of Geneva. He has previously conducted socio-legal research in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, concerning the drafting of a local law on street children. His current research is based on fieldwork done in Africa, Latin America, and India and focuses on the role and resistance of working children’s movements in the continuous development of international child labour norms.


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