The international community designated June 12 as World Day Against Child Labor to highlight the global extent of child labor and call for action to combat it. While significant progress has been made in reducing child labor in recent years, much work remains to be done.
Recent estimates from the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggest that approximately 215 million boys and girls are engaged in child labor worldwide, and over half of these children are entrapped in its worst forms. Every day, children as young as four years old are exposed to hazardous chemicals, hours of strenuous work, and exploitation. School is often a remote possibility, and they cannot conceive of a bright future. We must take action to safeguard their best interests and ensure their futures.
The theme of this year’s World Day Against Child Labor is “Human rights and social justice… let’s end child labor.” With this year’s theme, the ILO and international community are highlighting that fundamental labor rights – freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the elimination of child labor, forced labor, and discrimination in employment or occupation – are interdependent. At the Department of State, we often see that violations of one type of fundamental right impact the respect for and protection of others. And, at the same time, the recognition, promotion and protection of one category of fundamental rights can have positive effects in other areas.
An example that comes to mind is that of rubber plantation workers and the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL). Children in Harbel, Liberia, had worked alongside their parents for years to meet quotas for tapping rubber trees. The children and their parents had no way to raise their concerns. But, following the 2005 election and greater political space for freedom of association, the establishment of FAWUL gave workers a voice and led to the company and union negotiating an historic collective bargaining agreement in 2007 that reduced the quotas, and banned child labor on the plantation. In 2010, FAWUL negotiated a second contract under which the company agreed to provide children living on the plantation with better schools.
Situations of child labor are rarely solved overnight or by individuals acting alone, but rather they are solved through collective action. In 2006, the member states of the ILO, among them the United States, set out a Global Action Plan to eliminate the worst forms of child labor within ten years. This plan rests on the pillars of collective action and the robust political will of all governments.
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor targets our efforts around the globe to focus on empowering worker rights advocates and NGOs. We do this with the knowledge that eliminating the worst forms of child labor is most effective and sustainable when done through multi-stakeholder action to safeguard the rights of all workers.
Secretary Clinton believes that “working together, we can provide families across the world with meaningful alternatives to child labor and by doing that we address the root causes — including inequality, inadequate access to education, a lack of decent work for parents, poor enforcement of labor laws — all of which perpetuate the cycle of poverty.” Our goal to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2016 is appropriately ambitious, but nevertheless I am confident it is achievable.