10:21 AM Jun 13, 1996


Geneva 12 Jun (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- The US administration is working with Congress to establish a "child-labour-free" labelling programme for domestic and imported garments, US Labour Secretary Robert Reich announced Wednesday.

The Labor Secretary of the world's richest country confessed that enforcement of laws against child labour in the US was a problem -- with just 100 inspectors to enforce labor laws covering more than 100 million workers at six million work places -- and suggested use of the labelling scheme and consumer power for enforcing laws.

The irony of the United States pushing strongly developing countries to set up judicial and administrative apparatus to enforce machinery to enforce intellectual property monopoly rights of US corporations, but speaking of its own inability to enforce the child labour laws within its own boundaries would not be lost in the current debates for using the WTO to enforce labour laws and standards.

The Reich views came in a speech to the informal meeting of Labour Ministers on the child labour issue. Reich proposed that the ILO secretariat to make recommendations for appropriate criteria for an international labelling programme for garments, carpets, footwear and products from other industries where child labour is an international problem, and the proposal should be ready for consideration within a year.

"I am convinced that labelling programs are going to go forward with or without the ILO. But a tripartite involvement and cooperation would be the best approach. The US is prepared to fully participate in such an effort. Consumers will respond to such a campaign, and if they do, manufacturers as well. Child labour will no longer be profitable if the exploiters have a hard time selling their products."

Reich took the occasion to repeat the US demand for the World Trade Organization to play a role in elimination of child labour and for trade liberalisation and implementation of core labour standards to go hand in hand. International Financial Institutions, he added, must also fully integrate child labour issue into their decisions. The World Bank and other development banks should foster education of children, and not their exploitation.

The Rugmark labelling scheme, Reich referred to, is the one set up to certify hand-woven carpets coming from developing countries, particularly from South Asia, and competing with the industries in Germany and the United States, are produced without child-labour.

A consumer-driven labelling scheme, set up with funds and help from several leading NGOs, the scheme and its benefits have not been without controversy.

Some active NGOs, for example like Swamy Agnivesh in India, who have been campaigning for decades against child labour and bonded labour and slave-like conditions of work, have charged that this kind of scheme, focusing necessarily on the export sector, merely send children off to sectors of economic activity geared to domestic sector, was distracting attention from efforts to force governments to tackle and resolve the basic causes, and merely drive the children from such work to more dangerous and hazardous work including child prostitution.

The ILO's own document for the informal meeting has said that such non-governmental and consumer campaigns, while raising awareness about child labour and forcing some governments and business leaders to take more vigorous action have had "unintended consequences".

The ILO has said: "For example, the mere threat of trade sanctions led employers in the garment industry of an Asian country to abruptly dismiss dozens of thousands of children in an effort to forestall such sanctions. The end result was that such dismissed children shifted to other occupations, which were often more hazardous than the jobs they used to perform in the garment industry. There were no instances of children returning to school. This example suggests that measures concentrating solely on the export sector may drive child labour underground..."

There are also some concerns and worries that such labelling schemes and issue of such markets for export, merely substitute non-official licensing and marking schemes, which are less accountable publicly for official licensing and export or import control schemes (which the WTO frowns upon) which neo-classical trade policy economists say lead to rentier incomes and inefficient allocation of resources.

The ILO also found, after a survey of NGOs working in the area, that economic incentives like cash grants etc are useful to remove children from work places, but not successful in sustaining and keeping them out.

Reich said that US Labour department survey has documented widespread exploitation of child workers which showed that

* children in glass factories exposed to broken glass and intense furnace heat without protective clothing or even a pair of shoes,

* young girls trafficked over long distances into prostitution,

* children on sugar plantations wielding machets and suffering self-inflicted, frequently incapacitating wounds.

The problem of child labour, and its occurrence in domestic (rather than competing export sectors amenable to consumer or trade sanctions) was brought into focus by Dr. L. Mishra, the Labour secretary (permanent official heading the ministry) of India -- a focus of much international attention over child labour. Mishra said while no accurate data was available, working children in India comprised mostly unpaid family workers in rural and urban areas, agriculture, livestock, forest and fisheries, and account for 85% of the population of working children. Manufacturing, servicing and repairs in the urban areas, he added, accounted for only 9 percent of working children. Working children in India, he said, accounted for 5.2% of total population and lower than in many other developing countries, but at 17 million was quite large in absolute numbers. Mishra outlined both general economic programs to deal with the problem as well as door-to-door survey and awareness raising programs to sensitise employers, parents and children.

Jamaica's Labour Minister, Portia Simpson, said that the "dominant centres for child labour in our region are our streets. There many children engage in a range of informal 'hustle' activities as a survival strategy. And street-based activities expose many children to serious risks."

While the problem is impatient for solution, and needs a new programme of relief for children who currently have to work, it is a complex one requiring coordinated national and international responses. They had to work together to eliminate poverty, the real cause of child labor, and governments reinforce strategies by helping to tone-down "impersonal markets". She also called for leading role from trade unions.

Zimbabwe's Labour Minister, Mrs. F.L.Chitauro, while appreciating the ILO secretariat document for the discussions and for its identifying poverty as the 'greatest single force' behind child labour. Mrs. Chitauro said it would not be too far-fetched to conclude that beyond child labour were the worse evils of poverty, economic destitution and social deprivation. The developed countries and the IFIs, she said, should re-examine their policies and make them adequately responsive to the socioeconomic development of all countries of the world.

The International Labour Conference is due to consider some international instrument (Convention and or Recommendation) to deal with child labour issues in 1998 and 1999. In a reference to this, Mrs. Chitauro stressed the need for a careful definition. She was rather sceptical of the ILO report's "loose definition" as one covering all economic activities and which, elsewhere in the report, includes peasant chores and street kids' vending activities. While governments have to find effective solution to street kids' vending activities, a child assisting parents in a family plot, provided it has enough time to rest and attend school, could not be labelled a child labourer.

There was a need to pay particular attention to the definition and parameters "less we draft a convention that many countries will not ratify and whose provisions will draw revulsion from the majority of people in our societies," she warned.

The employers' delegate from India, Mr. I.P.Anand, said the problem lay outside the jurisdiction of organized industries and occupations, and prevalent mostly in the informal, mini- and micro-enterprises and needs multidimensional solutions including the root causes -- cumulative and interlinked consequences of poverty. The principal cause of child labour is the gruesome poverty in the Asia-Pacific and African regions. All the proclamations from house-tops that "our heart bleeds for the poor" would give solace to nobody and overtime could be counter-productive.

"In the absence of visible impact," Anand said, "the populist approach under which ILO seems to be adopting such issues in its core programme, periodically will exhaust itself just as its interest in population, regulation question has exhausted itself, dimmed and has gone out of its active domain and documents."