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The globalisation of dignity

Working children have been prevented from attending the ILO’s child labour conference, currently taking place in Buenos Aires. So they set up their own conference instead.

Ethiopia. Rod Waddington/Flickr. CC (by)

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) has provided for children to be heard in all matters concerning them. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has excluded anyone under the age of 18 from the IV Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour, currently taking place in Buenos Aires. Supposedly for their protection.

In October, around 300 children, adolescents, academics, NGOs, governmental representatives from Bolivia and working children from Latin America, Europe and West Africa gathered in La Paz, Bolivia, as an alternative meeting to discuss the policies of the ILO and the Bolivian government. The Bolivian government has been heavily criticised by the ILO for its law on children and adolescents adopted by the parliament three years ago. Because that prioritises the protection of working children against a general ban of their work. In addition, the working children took stock of 41 years of their organisational history.

Peter Strack interviewed Professor Manfred Liebel, one of the co-organisers of the meeting, after the results.

• • •

Manfred Liebel: The forum really made a dialogue between the generations possible. This was unusual for the invited researchers, many of the scientists were in Bolivia for the first time. But, for example, Karl Hanson's speech on ILO policy helped explain that the ILO used to hold a pragmatic position on children’s work until the 1980s. It promoted a minimum age through ILO Convention 138, but at the same time also advocated protective measures for children who were working. After that, the position of the ILO has become increasingly hardened and ‘ideologised’.

Peter Strack: Why is that?

ML: Unfortunately, the trade unions are responsible. They used to be far more open in the 1980s. For example, the union of schoolteachers; also, the metalworkers’ union had a youth wing and was committed to partnerships with the movements of working children. But with the evaporation of their solidarity, all that declined. Since then, it has become about how to get rid of child labour as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

Child labour has probably also become the ILO’s main raison d’être.

The issue of child labour has probably also become the ILO’s main raison d’être. Although it has advanced an important convention in relation to indigenous peoples, in terms of world economic issues, it has lost more and more influence.

On child labour, the ILO says there will still be 121 million child labourers worldwide in 2025 unless the fight is stepped up. I assume there will be more. The ILO itself distinguishes between child labourers and children in economic activities which are not counted. For me, this underlines how important it is that we make policies which also take care of these children. However, there are no indications that ILO to do that. It simply wants to make them disappear.

PS: The Bolivian Law on Children and Adolescents provides for protective measures. What can the Bolivian government offer in this regard?

ML: Unfortunately, not much. The law was a compromise and for over three years, there has been a struggle over how it can be implemented. Even within the government, there are different views. Some are behind the protective approach of the law, which recognises the positive aspects of children’s productive activity within their families or communities. Others choose only those elements which are not in conflict with the ILO approach. So, there is now a UNICEF-funded guide to the application of the law for adolescents. This is progress. But the same thing does not exist for the younger ones below age 15.

Since the passing of the law, the balance of power in the government has also shifted. And if government leaders with influence do not give clear signals from above, it will be hard to move forward at the grassroots level with practical initiatives. Perhaps with one exception: the Ministry of Education is working intensively on alternative or supplementary programmes that benefit the education of working children. For the forum in La Paz, I had hoped that President Evo Morales would send at least a message. But he didn’t.

Now, a problem with the law is that children do not really have a right to work, but only the right to apply for an exemption from being excluded from work. And that entails a great deal of bureaucracy, which distracts from the protective mission of the law.

However, in the city of Cochabamba there are efforts to implement the granting of work permits in cooperation with different organisations, including NGOs, in a pragmatic and non-bureaucratic manner. There is a committed effort to bring the law to life.

PS: This will at least be of benefit to those who find a job in the formal sector, because control mechanisms are put in place to ensure that their rights are respected. But enforcement is also a question of money...

ML: Yes, and the Bolivian state does not have that many resources. The government revenue is decreasing. But it is also a question of how to distribute existing funds. Obviously, the share for social policy is currently being reduced. Bolivia could therefore use international support. But the rejection of the Bolivian Law on Children and Adolescents by the ILO has blocked projects to protect working children. Committed NGOs in Europe should push more for cooperation projects with their governments, which provide ample money. Support is especially key with the children's rights offices in the municipalities. Staff must be trained. They have to get regular employment contracts. Employees need to see children's rights offices as supportive bodies to improve children's living and working conditions, not as a simple approval authority. And even if that takes place initially only in some pilot regions, it would be a start.

PS: The forum was also conceived as an event where children and young people could engage in dialogue with public authorities, Bolivian trade unions, the ILO and UNICEF. However, except for the relevant deputy minister at the beginning of the forum, and then the ombudsmen and staff of the municipal child rights offices, officials were barely represented. Did the forum fail in that respect?

ML: It looks like the government does not want to push forward with the implementation of the law. At least, it does not seem to want to position itself. I had expected that the ILO would avoid the debate. The national office asked at the headquarters level in Geneva and were told ‘No’. This is an indictment of the organisation. And UNICEF emphasised at the end of their letter of rejection how important the event was, but justified their absence with the fact that they did not like the topics on the agenda. That's a pity, because they would probably have added important things to the debate. Finally, the National Trade Union sent messages from individuals who sympathised with the children, but they did not want to speak publicly. Like everywhere else, unions baulk at child labour. Still, due to the great public response to the forum, I assume that it will have some impact on the state and on other institutions.

PS: What alternatives exist if the ILO does not move?

ML: On the one hand, more awareness must be raised that working children will continue to exist in the long term and therefore that protection programmes are needed. On the other hand, the organisations of working children can be strengthened to make themselves heard in their societies. In Bolivia, this is a special challenge due to the high proportion of indigenous people. Because the whole discourse about child labour is strongly influenced by Western ideas from the time of the emergence of capitalism, while in the indigenous languages there is not even a corresponding word for it. While the ILO held a meeting in 2010 on children’s work in indigenous cultures, it did not lead to them acknowledging that the situation of working children is more diverse and that they need more diverse support services than what their current conceptual framework permits.

PS: The Bolivian movement is quite self-confident and successful. For example, by influencing the constitution and this law. Why then did its support recently decline?

ML: I am not sure. Were they afraid of international controversy? But the reality is that they face major organisational challenges. They have to work, go to school, they cannot afford to take long bus trips to meet and exchange across the country. And without communication with each other, they cannot become stronger.

PS: After the forum, there was a meeting of the movements of working children. What came out of it?

ML: Many things! For example, they decided to set up their own news agency in order to bring out specific messages from the world of working children. Not only from Latin America. Another point is a database of experiences from more than 40 years of working children. Successes, so-called ‘best practices’, but also difficulties from which later generations can learn, legislate with, organise with, and so on. One of the important things this time was the presence of two girls from Africa and a moving videoconference with three working girls from India. This international cooperation is key.

Interview conducted by Peter Strack and originally published in German in the November 2017 issue of ila - Zeitschrift der Informationsstelle Lateinamerika. Reprinted with permission.

About the authors

Manfred Liebel is Professor emeritus of Sociology at Technical University of Berlin; co-founder and lecturer at the master programme “Childhood Studies and Children’s Rights” at Free University of Berlin and Potsdam University of Applied Sciences; consultant of the Latin American movements of working children and youth; and author of the books A Will of their Own: Cross-cultural perspectives on working children (2004) and Children’s Rights from Below (2012).

Peter Strack is an independent journalist.

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