Child labor advocates come together for three days of sharing and strategy – National Consumers League

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The world’s child labor advocacy community does not gather together very often, but it did just that Sunday, July 28 through Monday, July 30, here in Washington for an international conference on agricultural child labor. More than 60 percent of the 215 million child laborers globally work in farms and fields–if you’re trying to solve the puzzle that child labor presents, agricultural child labor is the biggest piece of that puzzle and should not be ignored. Children who work in agriculture are exposed to pesticides and hazardous equipment like machetes. If you’ve ever seen a seven- or eight-year-old opening a cocoa pod with a machete, you know what kinds of dangers children are exposed to on farms internationally.

The Global March Against Child Labor, a world-wide network of civil society groups, teacher unions, and trade unions, organized the conference with logistical support from the Child Labor Coalition (CLC)–co-chaired by NCL and the American Federation of Teachers–and CLC members, especially the Solidarity Center and the International Labor Rights Forum. About 150 representatives from 40 different countries attended all or part of the three-day event, about half of those were from developing countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and the Philippines with endemic child labor problems.

Senator Harkin (Iowa-D), the congressional champion who has led a many-year crusade to reduce child labor, opened the conference with a speech that urged attendees to work to remove the “worst forms of child labor”—the types of child labor that harm physical, mental, or moral well-being of a child worker. After the speech, the senator stayed for the rest of the morning to soak up as much of the conference as he could. For the advocacy community, it was a powerful statement of support and concern.

Kailash Satyarthi, founder and leader of the Global March and a Nobel Prize nominee, expressed frustration at the slow progress in eliminating the worst forms of child labor. He reminded attendees that the 2016 deadline to eliminate worst forms of child labor set by the international community is fast approaching and we still do not have a strategic child labor elimination plan for each country. Satyarthi also demanded that multinational corporations stop hiding behind modest corporate social responsibility initiatives and seriously confront the huge child labor problems in their supply chains.

CLC member and filmmaker Len Morris of Media Voices for Children agreed, telling conference participants that the corporate sectors responsible for many child laborers— cocoa, cotton, and tobacco—could eliminate child labor from their supply chains in a year or two if they really wanted to. Money and resources, said Morris, are the key. Companies simply must be willing to commit enough financial resources to adequately confront these difficult problems.

The conference featured a number of leaders in the fight to keep kids in school and out of exploitative child labor, including Constance Thomas of the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, Fred van Leeuwen of Education International, Geronimo Venegas, president of the IUF Agricultural Trade Group, Mauro Vieria, Ambassador of Brazil, Tim Ryan of the Solidarity Center, and many others working on the front lines of child labor remediation.

The difficulties of eradicating child labor proved a steady theme for conference participants. U.S. presenters Norma Flores Lopez of the Children in the Fields Campaign and  Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch noted the very disappointing withdrawal of occupational child safety rules  for agriculture by the Department of Labor and the White House in April. One child labor advocate who works on agricultural child labor issues in West Africa was stunned to learn that the U.S. has its own problem with child labor in agriculture and was having similar difficulties reducing its dependence on child workers.

The conference featured several workshops that allowed participants to strategize about remediation efforts. A conference framework document identified several factors needed to eliminate child labor in agriculture:

  • a conducive legislative environment and policy framework;
  • protection of child rights; universal free quality basic public education;
  • decent employment and decent wages and work for adult workers [so children do not have to work];
  • food security, the right to food and sustainable rural livelihoods;
    the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively in free, independent trade unions;
  •  the rights of farmers to form their own independent organizations;
  • gender equality, social inclusion and non-discrimination;
  • strong safety and health laws and their enforcement;
  •  adequately resourced and funded labor inspection.

The conference also allowed participants other opportunities for activism. Several of the Global March attendees picketed the White House with anti-child labor signs. And conference attendees also enjoyed some “down time” at a wonderful evening of music and child labor activism at a local Busboys and Poets restaurant. The event, organized by the CLC and ILRF, and cosponsored by the Global March and the CLC, featured talks by three farmworker youth who are interning for CLC members the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) and Farmworker Justice, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The interns spoke movingly about their experiences working in U.S. fields and the challenges posed by educationally by their constant migration. Norma Flores Lopez, the director of the Children in the Fields Campaign for AFOP and the Domestic Issues Committee chair for the CLC, related the interns experiences to her own working in the fields as a farmworker youth.

All in all, the weekend provided many opportunities for the advocacy community to come together from across the globe, all of us looking for effective strategies to reduce or eliminate child labor in our countries. Perhaps most important, the conference focused some much-needed attention to the problem of child labor in agriculture across the world.