Cries unheard: the barriers to ending child labour

Speech to semi-plenary session of Global Conference on Child Labour, The Hague, May 2010 

I will try to be brief as I am very aware that three quarters of the way through a conference on child labour with this sort of audience there is little that I can say that you do not already know.

I was very struck by the comment from the speaker Ms Nyunguna in the last session who stated quite bluntly the harsh truth that “We do not own this problem” of child labour. This I think is core to the world’s failure to eliminate child labour. However I would put Ms Nyunguna’s important insight slightly differently. It is that we would sooner own just about every other problem rather than that of child labour.

This is because as individuals and organisations we have to relate to a multiplicity of stakeholders and we will tend to privilege those most immediate to us, those who are the loudest and those who have the most power to advance or impede our own most favoured interests. Tragically for the child labourers of the world they rarely are in a position to make their voices heard to the powerful, hence their needs are most easily ignored amongst the clamour of other interests. And, when decision-makers privilege the priorities of powerful stakeholders over those of children in labour they will find no lack of stories to tell themselves that what they are doing is not only necessary but morally good.

The most common excuses for failing to act on such fundamental issues of human rights are economic. Paul Whitehouse, Chair of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority in the UK notes how the introduction of ships’ loading lines was opposed in the 19th Century by the British Government department responsible for trade because while it recognised that it would unquestionably save the lives of sailors it would also impinge upon the profits of ship owners. I do not deny for a moment that economic concerns are vital issues in the modern world. But if we allow them to become fundamental they will define us, in whole or in part, as a singularly unattractive sort of people, the sort who are prepared to tolerate the sufferings of others in the name of our selfish interests.

Some of the finest moments in human history have occurred when decision makers have unshackled their minds from the primacy of economic concerns. Modern historians recognise, for example, that Britain’s abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade cost the nation millions of pounds, a loss the nation was prepared to bear such was the society’s revulsion at the human cost of the country’s economic success. In the modern world child labourers are generally disorganised and distant from the powerful, obscured from view by the complexity of the global market and hence easily forgotten. Even domestic labourers in our own midst in Europe and America are sufficiently out of sight to have their rights generally ignored.

The last British Government, progressive on many issues, declared that it saw no need for a new international convention on domestic labour, despite cases such as Patience versus the UK demonstrating how easily, even for an adult, domestic labour can degenerate into slavery. The vulnerability of children is even more pronounced. And yet such risks are discounted in the face of the principle of minimising regulation.

In the coming months many other stakeholders may find reasons that they find morally convincing to oppose an international convention on domestic labour, or other measures to combat other forms of child labour, particularly in agriculture. But if we as a human society, as a community of nations and employers and civil society, allow such arguments to triumph in relation to child domestic labour and all the other forms of child labour it will be a terrible indictment of all of us.

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