Remarks by ILO Director-General Guy Ryder at the Opening Session
16 May 2022
Tackling the root causes of child labour is at the centre of our discussions this week.
Let me thank the Republic of South Africa and President Ramaphosa for hosting this 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour. To the city of Durban and its people, we express our solidarity and support on your path to recovery from the terrible floods of last month.
This is the Fifth global conference on the elimination of child labour, the first to be held in Africa, and the last one before the 2025 deadline for the elimination of child labour set under the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. We are in the right place, at the right time.
The right place because Africa is the continent from where the solutions to the global child labour challenge will emerge. The political commitment, policy innovations, and coordinated regional action, in the face of challenges perhaps steeper than in any other region, are evidence of that. Africa is an incubator for approaches to tackling child labour that the rest of the world can benefit from.
The right time because the worldwide movement against child labour just received a wake-up call. Because child labour has actually increased for the first time since we started measuring it twenty years ago. Today there are 160 million children in child labour, half of them in work that puts their health, safety and moral development at risk. 89 million are very young – 5 to 11 years – and child labour is rising particularly in this age group. Covid-19 has made the situation more difficult still.
So the question is: will we allow progress against child labour to continue to stall, or will we summon the will, the resources and the vision needed to regain momentum and reach our common goal? This conference is a precious opportunity to give a clear answer.
The choice is ours.
Some may say that child labour is an inevitable consequence of poverty, and we have to accept that. But that is wrong. We can never resign ourselves to child labour. We do not have to. Tackling the root causes such as household poverty is essential. But make no mistake, child labour is a violation of a basic human right, and our goal must be that every child, everywhere is free from it. We cannot rest until that happens.
And we have come a long way. In 2020, ILO Convention 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour reached universal ratification, a historic first. Convention 138, on minimum age, has been ratified by the vast majority of our member states. Last year the UN declared 2021 the International Year on the Elimination of Child Labour. With sound legal frameworks, expansion of educational opportunities, social protection and support for improved livelihoods, member States have achieved a decline of some 86 million in child labour since 2000, even counting the recent increase. The ILO is currently operating in over 60 countries to support our Government, Employers and Workers in eliminating child labour. This was and remains a top priority.
But we need to increase efforts. The evidence we have and the rich experience of the past decades means we know what needs to be done, and what works against child labour. The time has come to make sure our commitments are put into practical action that delivers, for children and their families.
Tackling the root causes of child labour is at the centre of our discussions this week.
That means expanding education and social protection and securing decent work for parents so that they can meet their needs and keep their children in school and out of work.
Securing adequate financing for the implementation of national action plans. Paying particular attention to child labour in agriculture, where seventy per cent of child labour occurs, and the needs of vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees and children with disabilities.
We need to adapt too to a rapidly changing context.
Technological innovations, demographic shifts, climate change, and globalization characterize our world today. Persistent inequalities and democratic backsliding undermine social and economic progress.
And the deplorable increase in armed conflicts and mass displacement of people are hitting children harder than anyone. Conflict and humanitarian crises dramatically raise the risk of child labour, including its worst forms.
And the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse years of progress against child labour. Children everywhere saw their education disrupted. Two-thirds of children have no internet at home and missed out on online learning. Millions of children are still out of school. The poverty effects of the crisis alone may increase child labour even further.
These trends are transforming the world of work. They are also changing the face of child labour.
But, there are emerging opportunities too to accelerate the elimination of child labour. A human-centred approach that promotes inclusive and sustainable economic growth is key to this.
All people must be able to benefit from the opportunities of a changing world of work. We must put children’s well-being at the centre of economic and social policies.
Just think of the transformative power of technology used to help deliver quality education at scale and close the digital divide. International trade that operates fairly to open access to markets and technology transfer, promotes stability and generates decent jobs for all, even for the most disadvantaged.
International cooperation is capable of mobilizing a global response to global challenges such as child labour. Increased financial flows to developing economies.
Multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as Alliance 8.7, which has taken the lead worldwide, or regional initiatives like the Regional Initiative in Latin America, bring together governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, business, civil society and academic institutions to share knowledge, promote cooperation and accelerate progress against child labour and forced labour.
Strong workers’ and employers’ organizations and labour market institutions provide adequate protection for all workers and sustainable enterprises, supporting a shift, at scale, from the informal to the formal economy.
A truly just transition to a carbon-neutral economy that unleashes new sources of sustainable growth while protecting the environment for future generations.
Putting all this together means leveraging the profound shifts in the world of work to achieve such goals requires nothing short of a new social contract that puts people at the heart of economic and social policy.
We must keep children’s rights at the centre. We cannot allow attention and resources to be diverted from the fight against child labour to the other challenges before us.
Child labour is by no means restricted to the least developed economies. A lot is in middle-income countries. But it is always related to inequality, informality and poverty.
For greater national wealth to translate into reduced child labour, economic growth must be inclusive and its benefits equitably distributed. The tax revenues it generates must be invested in programmes and services that make a difference for children, above all in education and social protection.
And adults and young people above the minimum age for work must have access to all fundamental labour rights, to be able to claim a fair share of the wealth they help create. This includes the possibility to organize trade unions and negotiate wages and working conditions collectively.
Because child labour cannot be separated from the other struggles of working families. Remember this. More than two-thirds of children in child labour work alongside their parents.
Family farms and enterprises that depend on the labour of their children need greater support to improve their livelihoods and end that dependence. Promoting adequate rural livelihoods, organization of workers and small enterprises so that they can collectively promote their interests, formalization of the informal economy, economic diversification and a proper business environment to create decent jobs, and investing in basic services infrastructure will create the conditions for whole communities to lift themselves out of poverty and end child labour.
This needs to include a transformative agenda for inclusiveness, diversity and gender equality. Data shows clearly that the education level of mothers is a decisive factor in preventing child labour. Ensuring equal access for girls to quality education is vital. Throughout their lives, they need equal opportunities, equal participation and equal treatment in the workplace. Girls must be protected from early marriage and from the double burden of work outside the home as well as domestic work in the household.
We need to make a generational investment to make universal access to free compulsory, quality basic education a reality. The increase in child labour since 2016 has occurred exclusively among the youngest children, aged 5 to 11.
It can come as no surprise that there is a large share of younger children in child labour who are excluded from school entirely. Nearly twenty-eight per cent of 5 to 11-year-olds and thirty-five per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds in child labour are out of school. This severely constrains their prospects for decent work in youth and adulthood, it is the way that injustice passes from one generation to the next.
Following two years of COVID, when a large number of our children dropped out of school, it is absolutely imperative that we get them back.
Too little progress has been made in ensuring that all children enjoy their human right to social protection. Worldwide, some 1.5 billion children up to the age of 14, a significant number of whom are children in child labour, receive no family or child cash benefits. Yet we know that social protection can be an enormously powerful policy tool to prevent and eliminate child labour.
Comprehensive and child-sensitive social protection systems are critical. This week the ILO and UNICEF will launch a new report on the impact that social protection—ranging from maternity protection and cash transfer programmes to health insurance and income security in old age—has on child labour. We encourage policymakers to use the evidence presented, to sharpen the design and implementation of social protection programmes, and expand their coverage so their tremendous potential in reducing child labour is realized.
You have a full and rich agenda ahead of you. You will take stock of progress made since the last conference in Argentina in 2017, where the Buenos Aires Declaration was adopted. You will assess what is working but also implementation gaps, and share valuable knowledge and experience.
As significant as the proceedings this week are, what matters most is what happens when we return home.
The Conference will consider for adoption this week an action-oriented outcome document, the Durban Call to Action on the Elimination of Child Labour. A series of regional and global consultations have helped shape it. It offers a state-of-the-art roadmap for the elimination of child labour and the possibility to monitor your progress.
This week the UN Secretary-General called for us all to “rescue” the sustainable development goals. Let’s start today here in Durban. “Child lives matter”: Policy matters. Finance matters. Commitment matters. You matter. So let’s get to work!