End child slavery: my speech to the 3rd Global Conference on Child Labour, Brasilia, 8 Oct 2013

I am sure that in the course of this conference there will, rightly, be recognition of the significant progress in the struggle to end child labour across the world.

The ILO’s recent estimate, that child labour has reduced by 78 million since 2000, representing a one third decline overall which encompasses a 50% reduction in children in hazardous work is, indeed, an enormous achievement.

But in parallel with this there is a much darker statistic. Specifically the ILO 2012 estimate that there are around 5.5 million children in forced labour and that this figure has not varied significantly since 2005.

I do not think that we will do anyone any favours, least of all the children who find themselves in slavery across the globe, by not recognising this figure as anything other than a stark failure. Plainly whatever is being done right to address child labour, including its most hazardous forms, it is not enough to address child slavery.

 26% of all forced labourers are children, the majority found in Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, but every country and region of the world is affected by child slavery, from the cannabis factories of the UK which typically enslave trafficked Vietnamese boys, to the Indian Sumangali system that uses the forced labour of girls to produce the clothes many of us attending this conference today are wearing, to West Africa, where boys and girls are routinely and endemically trafficked into forced labour in agriculture, most well known into cocoa production, domestic work and fisheries.

To consider what must be done to address this most egregious form of child exploitation let us first begin by being clear about what we are talking about. Too often many people  use the terms child labour and child slavery interchangeable.

But here I am not seeking a rhetorical effect. The 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery defines child servitude as the handing over of a child with a view to exploitation.

It is important to be clear on this point because it means when we are talking about child labour that however hazardous is that labour it tends to be undertaken when the child is still in the care of their parents, and the parents generally have the best interests of the child at heart, even if they may be profoundly mistaken as to what those best interests are

Nevertheless when engaging in the struggle to end child labour there is that potential commonality of purpose with parents who will often be open to new ideas about how to do better by their children.

No such potential exists when we are discussing the issue of child slavery. For example consider for a moment children who have been handed over from their parents for things such as trafficking for forced labour or sexual exploitation, or forced child labour by a 3rd party, such as the govt of Uzbekistan’s slavery programme for cotton harvesting, or conscription in armed conflicts, or trafficked as child domestic workers.

While these represent diverse practices in a variety of different socio-economic contexts they all have one thing in common: in not one of them, nor any other child slavery situation, do the adults doing the exploiting of the children care one iota for the best interests of the child.

So in addition to the efforts being undertaken by governments, trades unions, businesses and non-governmental organisations on child labour a new set of initiatives are necessary to begin to tackle child slavery properly and systematically.

There are a number of elements to a credible programme against child slavery and I will briefly outline them now.

At the very outset such a programme should acknowledge explicitly the difference between child labour and child slavery and recognise that a new departure is required to address the more egregious abuse of child slavery. Its must be a key lesson of the past 10 years that the approaches of the past to address child labour, even in its most hazardous forms, are woefully insufficient in addressing child slavery.

Second a credible global programme against child slavery must, of course, include education ensuring that school is affordable, accessible and a safe environment particularly for girls.

But it is not enough to presume that the expansion of universal education even on these terms will be enough to protect children who are vulnerable to slavery. Very often those who are most vulnerable do not obtain education because they come from a discriminated against group, such as Dalits and other minorities in South Asia. Hence a credible global response to child slavery must mean the adoption of measures, including relevant anti-slavery and anti-discrimination laws and increased court capacity, that will advance rule of law by preventing bigoted public officials from arbitrarily excluding any section of citizenry from their rights as citizens.

And children must also be directly involved in the struggle against child slavery: In West Africa for example a recurrent reason why children become trafficked into the Ivorian agricultural sector from countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali is their tragically banal dream of owning a bicycle. Given their current circumstances they can’t see how they would ever afford such a thing if they were to stay in school and so fall for the false promises of traffickers. Appropriate vocational and entrepreneurial education that takes accounts of these children’s aspirations could help them imagine a better long term future for themselves that avoids them falling into the abuses of slavery.

It is also important to remember the 2005 research of Lise Rende Taylor in Thailand who found that completion of education was a causal factor of young women and girls being trafficked: because their families had put such efforts into getting these girls and young women educated they expected a return on that investment and hence there was considerable pressure on these girls and young women to leave home to seek work, unintentionally driving them into being trafficked.

There may always be some negative consequences for some to interventions aimed at advancing positive social change for the many. So it is important to move away from the idea of responding to child labour or child slavery as the search for a magic bullet, a simple solution, that will end all problems and instead view any response as a learning process that openly acknowledges any mistakes and seeks to rectify them.

A credible global programme against child slavery must include also elements relating to law enforcement and child protection so that cops in the countries most affected by child slavery can identify children who are in slavery, understand their responsibilities towards them, and know the best methods and partners with whom to work to remove children from slavery. Developing such responses, police force to police force, and child protection specialist to child protection specialist should become a significant component of post 2015 aid programmes.

A credible global programme against child slavery must also include working in and with the very communities where child slavery and slavery-like practices prevail.  Only by fully understanding the complex causes behind harmful social norms and turning them around together with the support of the communities that commonly practice them will child slavery ultimately be eradicated on the large scale required.

This is one area where the business community can play an enormous role by casting a cold eye honestly on its supply chains, recognizing, particularly in agriculture and south Asian garment manufacture, that slavery, and the slavery of children are brutal realities of those supply chains and more robust and open approaches to dealing with them are needed.

I understand that tomorrow the international confectionary company Mondalez is announcing its new policy on child labour which does just this and articulates approaches and expectations of its staff and suppliers in how they will deal with these issues. I believe this radical new approach breaks the old, discredited paradigms of businesses employing dubious “ethical auditors” to assure the world that there are no human rights issues in their supply chains when it is an open secret that there are. Mondalez should be congratulated on adopting such a visionary new approach, which I hope will inspire others to follow suite.

One of the biggest failures in the struggle against child slavery, and indeed all slavery in the world today, is that the development and humanitarian communities are largely absent. It seems that they are hoping, if they ponder the subject of child slavery at all, that the programmes they undertake, blind to non-gender based forms of discrimination, will be sufficient to remove the causes of slavery in general and child slavery in particular.

They won’t be. So it is necessary in order to obtain comparable progress on child slavery that we have seen on child labour, that child slavery eradication must be recognized as a fundamental development goal and included in the post 2015 agenda as such.

Aid policies of governments, international and not-for-profit agencies have to be formulated explicitly stating how they seek to contribute to ending child slavery. For example basic questions should be asked such as “How would UNICEF’s partnering with the Government of Uzbekistan to access funds from the Global Partnership for Education contribute to the ending of that government’s systematic use of forced child labour in cotton harvesting, which, by the way, brings more revenue into Uzbekistan, mostly for private benefit, than would be accessed from the Global Partnership for Education?”

Similarly governments need to consider the roles that trade and diplomatic policy can play: will the community of nations continue to be happy to build commercial links with countries such as Qatar and the Gulf states or Uzbekistan which formulate much of their economic and other policies on being able with impunity to enslave children and other vulnerable workers.

Finally we must have a serious consideration of the relationship between child slavery and child marriage. Work undertaken by Anti-Slavery International, Girls Not Brides and others have shown that child marriage can be slavery of the most distressing kind, as children are in essence traded with the thinnest of veils of respectability for sexual exploitation. That hypocrisy should no longer be tolerated and child forced marriage treated as unacceptable as any other form of child sexual exploitation.

The struggle against child labour should give us hope that we can advance also the struggle against child slavery. But in order to do so we must attack child slavery directly and not merely hope that it might somehow go away. This conference must take up challenge of child slavery if it is to be serious about addressing child labour. If we do not we will return again to some gathering like this in the future with the same figure of 5.5 million children enslaved indicting our failure. 

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