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International Conference on
"Out of Work and Into School -
Children's Right to Education as a Non-Negotiable"

Speeches on behalf of the global trade unions

Dear Friends, dear brothers and sisters of the Indian and International Trade union movement, dear speakers and distinguished guests, and above all dear children

First, our thanks to the MV Foundation, to the other organizers of the conference and especially to the Dutch Trade Union Federation, FNV, for inviting the trade union colleagues to take part in this conference. My name is Simon Steyne from the British Trade Union Congress, and I am a member of the Governing Body of the ILO. I bring you greetings from the 160 million workers organized across the world in the free and democratic trade unions of the Global Union family. It is an honour to be asked by my trade union colleagues to address you today.

It is an honour to reaffirm the commitment of Global Unions to the total elimination of child labour; to universal, free, compulsory and accessible basic education, provided by governments as a quality public service.

And if I may say so, it is an honour to take this opportunity to reaffirm our friendship and commitment to our sisters and brothers of the Indian trade union movement - and to the world's greatest democracy - the Republic of India.

Yesterday, fifty trade unionists from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, all of them active in the struggle for global education and the elimination of child labor, from national and international unions representing teachers, textile workers, construction workers, agriculture workers and domestic workers met to exchange experiences and examples of successful good practice in the struggle to get children out of work and into school.

My brother from Ghana, Andy Tagoe, will report to you on the outcomes of our workshop. Let me just say a few more words. The trade union movement has been struggling against child labor for over a century. Our starting point in the struggle for the total elimination of child labor - both as an absolute moral issue and essential if we are to construct a socially sustainable global economy - is the rule of international law. And that law is embodied above all in the two child labor conventions of the United Nations ILO and in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. All countries should ratify those minimum standards. I am sure that tomorrow my colleague from IPEC will dispel any misunderstandings about these Conventions. Let me say that we fully support their objectives - the total elimination of child labor under the age of 15 - whether hazardous or not - and the elimination of all hazardous work for those under 18 years of age.

But child labor does not exist in a vacuum. And it is not a charity issue. It is a rights issue, a social justice issue, a power issue, a gender issue, an education issue and a decent work for adults issue.

We agree with the MV Foundation and the Global March against Child Labour. Poverty is not the cause of child labor; social injustice is the cause of child labour. It is child labour that causes poverty; it is a brake on development. It not only damages the child - it damages the development of the nation and the world.

We know that, with political will, even the governments of poor countries can make the decision that all children should be in school. And for every dollar invested in basic education, 7 dollars is returned to the nation in economic and social development. It is a question of priorities. We reject the claims of ruling elites who waste resources on senseless arms races; give tax cuts to the rich, send their own children to the best universities of world, and then claim they lack the resources to provide even basic education for the children of the poor. Those elites are not just hypocrites: they are also standing in the way of the sustainable development of their nations and the world.

So first, we see child labour linked both to the denial to the access of education and to the denial of the rights of adults to have decent work. Work in which their rights are fully respected; the right to organise and bargain collectively and to work free from discrimination, forced labour and child labour.

First among those rights are the rights to organize in free trade unions and bargain collectively. Where trade unions are strong, and where collective agreements are made and kept there is no child labour.

But too many workers, especially women and migrant workers, are denied their human right to join free trade unions; workers in the public services including teachers; workers in export processing zones; workers in agriculture; workers in the informal economy, including domestic servants and home workers.

Yesterday, we discussed how trade unions had already included child labour in their collective bargaining agreements and how we could learn from that good practice. But we need to say something very clearly. Our NGO partners must understand, and employers and governments must hear: trade unions want to include child labour in their collective bargaining but they cannot do so if they are denied the right to bargain collectively.

All workers must have that freedom and I stress teachers too if they are to be able to take their full and proper role in the campaign to end child labour and ensure universal education. And all workers need it if they are to be able to improve the lives of their families and to work in full freedom. For us, these fundamental rights at work are indivisible and universal human rights. If they were not universal and indivisible they could not be described as human rights. They are an interlinking whole, reinforcing one another, and essential if we are to be able to hear our children cry out " free at last" " free at last".

Thank you, and now let me pass the floor to my dear brother from Ghana, Andy Tagoe.

Brother Simon has introduced our holistic and integrated approach to child labour and education and its link to decent work for adults and fundamental human rights at work. I agree with him. And let me add some further conclusions from in our trade union workshop.

In addition to the 8 ILO conventions that proclaim fundamental rights at work, we must also recall that, since 1998, all 177 member states of the ILO have been obliged as a result of the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to respect, promote and uphold in good faith the principles embodied in those eight conventions. That obligation arises from the simple fact of their membership of the ILO and regardless of whether they have ratified the conventions concerned. Thus, every member of the ILO is obliged to promote the effective elimination of child labour.

Let me also say that child labour reflects the failure of all the players in the global economy to accept and implement those rules that protect working people and their children. Casualisation, privatisation, and informalisation: all these failures of the current model of the global economy, which puts profit (money) before human need, are making the struggle against child labour harder as protections for working people are weakened.

Linked to full respect for the fundamental rights of workers is the need for full respect for tripartism. Governments must involve trade unions and employer's organizations in discussions to seek consensus on national social and economic policies. And tripartism must be respected at the international level too, including in PRSPs and in developing policy and programmes to combat child labour.

In addition to a detailed examination of the meaning of ILO conventions 138 and 182, our workshop also discussed a number of practical trade union child labour projects. Let's just cite 3 examples : The IFBWW projects on child labour in the brick kiln industry - a sector predominated by migrant workers. This campaign has multiple benefits. Not only does it promote the removal of children from work and into school. It also has its roots in a successful organising strategy, which seeks to empower kiln workers through their self-organisation in free trade unions. It has resulted in collective bargaining agreements for improved wages and agreements, social security and commitment by employers not to use child labour.

Similarly the ITGLWF and its affiliates have successfully sought collective agreements with companies at national level not to use child labour. And like other global union federations it has sought the commitment of multinational enterprises to address child labour in their global supply chains by ensuring that there is no new recruitment of child labour and that existing child labourers are removed from work and supported in their transition to school.
In Andhra Pradesh the APVVU agricultural workers union campaigns for minimum and equal wages and the release of bonded and child labourers. It has succeeded in liberating nearly 17,000 bonded labourers in the last decade. It campaigns for land reform, including distribution of land for women, it campaigns against caste discrimination and untouchability, it seeks to protect the rights of displaced people and promotes women's leadership. On child labour, it insists that its own members should not allow their children to work but should send them to school. Union leaders monitor the situation through school committees in every village. And, due to lack of public provision, the union itself runs 14 schools for tribal children. This example has also been used by agricultural workers' unions in Africa.
We agree strongly that the elimination of child labour and the access to universal and basic education are indivisible.

We concluded that universal, free, quality, compulsory, accessible, and formal basic education - is the responsibility of the state. It is a public good, and should be provided as a universal public service. It must be a national budget priority. And it should not be undermined by the IMF or others demanding privatisation or cuts in public services.

The trade union movement agrees that quality is a key issue. And we will always want an ever-improving quality of education for our children. There is no maximum.
But we have to start from where we are. We agree with the MV Foundation and the Global March that we have to get children into school now. The more children in school, the more parents who become stakeholders in their children's schools, the more the demand for improvement will grow. But we absolutely oppose those who say that, because not every school is perfect, children are better off at work. We disagree. Literacy and numeracy - the basic learning skills - remain fundamental tools for empowerment. And the MV Foundation has demonstrated that all parents want their children to be empowered through formal education even if the standard of the schools is not always of the highest order. The trade union movement addresses these issues also within the framework of their commitment to the MDGs. We want all children in school as fast as possible - preferably yesterday - and certainly no later that 2015. And we demand that governments meet the goals of gender parity ensuring equal access for girls by next year.

We paid a great deal of attention to the problems of the girl child recognizing that girls are often in situations of special risk, vulnerability and hidden work. It is a simple truth that social development is accelerated exponentially through the education of women and girls. The empowerment of women through education and in the world of work is also a non-negotiable. In addition it is a fundamental motor for social development including better nutrition, and in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

On the question of quality, we concluded that there is a need for continuous improvement in teacher training and in the conditions of the service of teachers, reduction of class sizes, and development of a curriculum appropriate for all children. And we believe that teachers should be fully involved through their professional organizations in the development of national educational policies - at all stages. We believe that the public education sector should also help improve the quality of teaching in schools currently provided by NGOs, unions and employers. But the aim must be universal public education for all children, taught by teachers employed as public servants, fully and professionally trained. Remedial education currently provided by those bridge schools should be fully integrated into a quality public education service. And it is certainly clear that we need to respond to the challenge of school dropouts through this constant attention to improving quality.

In our workshop we examined a range of practical child labour projects being undertaken by trade unions around the world. Some of them are undertaken solely by trade union organizations but in many we work in alliances with other actors: with NGOs, with community based organizations, women's organisations, employers, with the public authorities and with the ILO/IPEC. We are deeply impressed by the success of the MV Foundation in community mobilisation, but we urge them to cement stronger relationships with the trade union movement. Successful alliances with NGOs are based on an understanding of our different, but complementary roles - it is, after all, the job of trade unions to negotiate with employers on behalf of their members.

A great benefit of our workshop was the opportunity for South-South exchange between trade union child labour activists. These projects include awareness raising both within the trade union movement and in the broader community, they include projects for developing credible systems of monitoring the existence and location of child labour, for remediation through education, and campaigns to promote effective national policies and laws to eliminate child labour. Important too was the opportunity for unions organizing in the industrial and agricultural sectors to discuss and seek deeper cooperation with teacher trade unions.

In conclusion, let me emphasise: we believe that there are only two ways to protect working people and their children sustainably; through the rule of good law in vibrant democracies, properly enforced through effective public services including well-functioning labour inspectorates, and through the self-organisation of workers in free trade unions. Rights matter, and only through respect for the rights of working people and their children will we get every child out of work and into school.


India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - 12 november 2004