Saturday, May 15, 2010

Child Labor Showdown in The Hague

I am just back from the Global Conference on Child Labor, put on in The Hague last week by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. There was a dramatic confrontation behind the scenes, and I will tell you how it went, but it won’t make any sense without a large dose of background, so bear with me.

From the standpoint of global governance, child labor falls under the aegis of the ILO and its International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC). The ILO is the UN agency that deals with labor issues, and it has a unique governance structure, with a Governing Body (like a board of directors) composed not only of government officials but also representatives of unions and employer federations. The Governing Body meets in Geneva in June and votes on international conventions written by ILO staff. These conventions are then submitted to national governments for ratification and become the legal framework for official international coordination.

There are two main conventions concerning child labor. Convention 138 sets forth the minimum age stipulations that are supposed to apply to various kinds of child labor. To be exact—and this is my own terminology—this convention defines four different sorts of activity, each with its own rules:

  • Full labor market participation. This means participating in the labor market exactly as an adult; the minimum age is 18, when a person is no longer deemed a “child”.

  • Restricted labor market participation. This is the same as full participation, except that work that would be especially hazardous at a younger age and work that conflicts with education are prohibited. The minimum age is 15 in developed countries, 14 in less developed countries.

  • Light work. This refers to a much more modest set of activities, less demanding in time and effort; there is a lot of scope for countries to determine what it does or doesn’t allow. The minimum age is 13 for developed countries, 12 otherwise.

  • Beneficial work. The convention does not restrict tasks children might perform for a few hours per week that are beneficial for them and their families (even if the kids don’t want to do it at the time). Think of washing the dishes after dinner or feeding the chickens in the back yard.

Incidentally, “work” in this context includes not only paid employment, but also unpaid but economically productive activity in the household or in family enterprises. In fact, the majority of child laborers work as members of their family, most in agriculture.

Convention 182 focuses on the worst forms of child labor (WFCL). These are divided into two groups. The “unconditional” worst forms are those that are inappropriate under all circumstances, things like prostitution, soldiering, bonded labor, and smuggling. The other category is hazardous work, which is identified at the national level and based on evidence of harmful physical or psychological impacts. Many children working in subsistence agriculture are regarded as being exposed to excessive hazards, such as dangerous equipment, chemicals, extreme temperatures, large animals and physical stress.

In its latest report, the ILO estimates that 215 million children are engaged in child labor as defined by Convention 138, and that 115 million of them are in hazardous work. There are no reliable global estimates for unconditional WFCL.

The ILO has adopted the goal, ambitious or delusional depending on your point of view, of eliminating all WFCL by the year 2016. (This is one year after the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, which are related but different.) Whether or not this goal is reached, it is used as a framework for mobilizing resources, fostering programs around the world and setting local targets. The Hague conference was organized as a check-in to determine the rate of progress so far and to set priorities for the next three years. There will be a follow-up conference in Brazil in 2013, a last rallying event before the 2016 target.

The main product of the conference was a roadmap document, suggesting what governments, international agencies and civil society (employers, unions and NGO’s) should be doing for the next three years. It went through several iterations, with a final negotiating session on the first night of the conference. It will be submitted to the ILO’s Governing Body next month.

That’s the background; here’s the story.

At the eleventh hour, at this final negotiating session, the US government delegation, supported by the employers, raised several fundamental objections to the proposed roadmap. In particular, they opposed any mention of Convention 138 or action against child labor in general. According to their demands, the only issue was Convention 182; we should eliminate the WFCL but sidestep the rest. They also opposed any reference to particular economic sectors like agriculture. Somehow the world is supposed to remove WFCL with a fine scalpel, leaving all other issues untouched.

The talks went on and on into the night, adjourning at 3 am. Every time the majority group (most governments, international agencies, NGO’s, unions) offered a compromise, the US team would step out into the hallway, pull out their cell phones and call Washington for instructions. The message was always the same: fight over every word, every comma. In the end, the only compromise allowed was a reference to child labor and Convention 138 in the preamble; the action items were scrubbed clean. Officially, the international community abstains from making any commitment to address child labor unless it is specifically hazardous. Half of the estimated child labor is to be eliminated, the other half ignored, at least for the next several years.

Just to be fair, the US government remains a generous donor to efforts targeting child labor—generous in the context of overall global parsimony. They provide the main external support for IPEC, and they fund a variety of important national programs in poor countries. On the other hand, it is exactly this level of funding that gives the US such an outsized ability to veto proposals at international forums: the infamous Golden Rule. (The one with the gold makes the rules.)

One small but telling irony: on the eve of the conference a rump group of academics organized by a German faction that calls itself “child labor protagonists” sent out a manifesto on the conference email list. Using militant language, they denounced efforts to eliminate child labor as elitist and ethnocentric. This is just another example of Europeans trampling other cultures underfoot, they said. Moreover, the only legitimate question is what children want. They want to work, as we know (because they are working), so let them work. The only intervention they recommend is supporting “unions” of child workers, which will supposedly lead to better and better-paid work. They called for the repeal of Convention 138 and the downsizing or elimination of IPEC. They demanded that child workers (or at least the ones affiliated with their organizations) be represented at international meetings. They should be happy at the outcome of the conference; thanks to the US government and the employers, they have made progress toward at least some of their goals.

What makes all of this such a strange spectacle is the actual situation on the ground. Suppose the primary goal is to remove 115 million children from hazardous work. That’s a lot of kids. You aren’t going to do this by creating thousands or millions of narrowly targeted intervention programs, teams of trained labor inspectors and social workers who will go out into communities and identify these children one by one. No, it is possible only by using broad spectrum methods that address non-hazardous forms of child labor as well. The most important of these is the provision of supplementary income to poor parents of school-age children. These income transfer programs, which often include requirements that children attend school or that their families take part in health and nutrition programs, have a wonderful track record of reducing child labor while also improving living standards. Everyone who studies child labor agrees on this. So what is the point of going to the mat over whether the roadmap rigorously excludes any mention of child labor that is not hazardous? That’s a real question: I’m wondering whether there is any motivation behind the US position beyond pure neoliberal ideology. (The same question could be asked of the “protagonistas”: in the end, is it all about freedom of contract in the labor market?) I don’t know the answer—I’m just asking.

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