Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, North America, Population

LABOUR: Global March Against Child Labour Hits Washington

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 27 1998 (IPS) - The Global March Against Child Labour capped a month of demonstrations in the United States here Wednesday before setting out for Geneva to press for action from 174 member countries of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Washington was the last stop on a tour that has seen anti-child labour campaigners march through five continents over the the past three months. The marchers from here will join similar groups from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America in demanding the ILO’s governing body approves a new convention banning especially abusive forms of child labour.

“We are talking about stopping a crime against mankind,” said Kailash Satyarthi of India, international coordinator for the Global March.

In the United States, marchers – including half a dozen former child labourers from India, the Philippines, South Africa and Central America – arrived in Los Angeles early this month and made their way by caravan through Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas, and on to St Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York and Philadelphia before arriving in the capital.

They were joined Wednesday by the top ranks of the U.S. labour movement, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, senior lawmakers, Clinton administration cabinet secretaries, and even Kathie Lee Gifford, a TV talk-show celebrity who became active in the movement after labour organisers publicly exposed the use of child labour in sweatshops which produced her own “Kathie Lee” apparel.

“We already have many laws,” she told a crowd of about 400 people, including many schoolchildren, who gathered at the Washington Mall just below the Capitol Building. “We need to enforce the laws (against child labour) that we already have.”

The Global March, an international alliance of some 1,400 organisations in more than 100 countries, has attempted to raise public awareness about the problem which, according to the ILO, afflicts more than 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 worldwide – nearly all of them in developing countries.

Most live in Asia, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, although the highest proportion of working children are found in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 40 percent of African children are in the workforce, compared with 21 percent in Asia, and 16.5 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the ILO.

These children work in a variety of capacities – from domestic servitude to making bricks and glass, from workers in assembly plants to rug-weaving, and from mining and quarrying to prostitution. Working conditions in all of these occupations are often harsh, unsafe and even brutal. Most of the products made by children are for domestic consumption but some, particularly rugs and textiles, are exported to other nations.

The marchers will converge at ILO headquarters in Geneva June 2- 18 to rally in support of a proposed new ILO Convention aimed at bringing an immediate halt to the most hazardous and exploitative working practices that children are required to perform.

These “extreme” forms of child labour include work that is likely to jeopardise the safety, health and morals of children, slavery and other forms of bondage, child prostitution and pornography. For example, agricultural work,- where children are exposed to potent pesticides, fertilisers or herbicides; ceramics and glass work; matches and fireworks production; deep-sea fishing (which is especially prominent in Southeast Asia); and construction are all industries in which the health and safety of children are at serious risk.

“There are certain forms of child labour for which there can be no alibi, whether economic or cultural,” according to ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne. “These can and must be identified, confronted and eliminated without further delay.”

The main objective of the march has been the proposed new Convention although organisers also stressed advances made in raising public consciousness about the issue. “We’ve really aimed this at the public, at consumers, to create some awareness of the issue,” said James Silk, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Center, which played a leading role in the U.S. sector of the campaign.

“We know that the response to the marchers in local media markets throughout their travel here and from churches and schools who greeted the marchers has been great, and than many ordinary folks are now demanding that their organisations do something about this,” he added.

While the overwhelming majority of child labourers live in the developing world, the problems also afflicts many children here in one of the world’s richest countries.

“In the United States, 13,000 children endure inhuman brutality in sweatshops in our cities, while 230,000 of their sisters and brothers sweat and toil as migrant labourers in our fields,” Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, head of the RFK Memorial Center, told the rally.

Sen. Tom Harkin, a Congressional leader in the fight against child labour, said he would soon introduce new legislation to increase penalties for child-labour violators in the United States and provide more money for federal government inspectors and enforcers.

Harkin succeeded earlier this month in adding an amendment to the Tariff Act of 1930 that would bar goods made with forced or indentured child labour from entering the United States. The amendment also includes two million dollars to increase US Customs personnel to enforce the law.

Last year, Harkin and other lawmakers succeeded in passing a one-year ban on the import of such products, but the Clinton administration, citing budget constraints, failed to enforce it.

“In international trade, we have to start treating products made with child labour like we do those made from endangered species,” Harkin said. “If we can protect elephants, we can protect kids. It’s as simple as that.”

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