Education is the right response to child labour

published 12 June 2008 updated 12 June 2008

"Education is the right response – it may be the only response that makes a real difference," EI Deputy General Secretary Jan Eastman told delegates assembled in Geneva today at the ILO's official launch of International Day for the Elimination of Child Labour 2008.

Address by EI Deputy General Secretary Jan Eastman to the International Labour Conference, Geneva International Day for the Elimination of Child Labour 12 June 2008 Education is the right response – it may be the only response that makes a real difference. Children are people. They too have rights, including the right to equality. The right to education. It has taken the world a very long time to recognize children as people, with rights, articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is still not the case for 218 million children under the age of 18 involved in child labour, and 72 million not in school at all — the majority of whom are girls. The fundamental rights of these children are violated. Their childhood is lost; the cycle of poverty and illiteracy is perpetuated. No hope for a better future. I can’t imagine, no, do not want to imagine, how sexual exploitation or hard labour at a young age affects a person’s development, or what using large and dangerous machinery with no training does to a child’s psyche. Being trafficked to an unknown place for an unpalatable purpose. Becoming a child soldier because it seems a way out, a better option than the poverty and violence of the daily life. Fear, exhaustion, hunger, boredom, pain and entrapment. Body-destroying, mind-numbing, spirit-annihilating labour — in fields, factories, mines, sweatshops, streets, other people’s houses, and elsewhere. The list is long. Make no mistake, the worst forms of child labour must be eliminated; but we must do so by eliminating all forms of child labour. There is a growing global consensus that using children as a form of cheap and expendable labour, the worst jobs at the lowest pay, is wrong and must change. But is the requisite political will present? Poverty, education and child labour are inextricably linked. While a root cause is poverty, the way out is through education. Free, compulsory, relevant, accessible, child-friendly quality public education is an effective and sustainable strategy as a preventative and as a rehabilitative measure. It encourages children to go to school and to stay in school. We know that when quality education is available parents will choose to send their children to school instead of to the workplace. The converse is also true, that parents can be swayed by child labour recruiters to send their children away, especially girls in rural areas where the lack of education and training facilities leaves them aimless as well as poor. The EFA goals of ensuring early childhood education and care, primary education for the hardest to reach and most marginalized, providing quality education for all, and removing gender inequality are the most important steps in eliminating child labour. A child who is in school full-time is more likely not to engage in child labour. Hence, expanding access is necessary, as is the provision of quality education. Not a second class education, not a mere few hours to make a break from the long work day. Teachers know too well that tired, hungry, stressed children do not learn. More and better trained teachers, with a higher proportion of women, are fundamental in promoting real learning and giving girls equality in schools. Attracting and retaining good teachers also means providing resources, in-service training, decent pay and job security, Freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and adequate funding for public education — all are essential prerequisites. Large classes, few resources, low pay and no support are conditions that de-motivate and cause teachers to leave. The current worsening employment conditions for teachers, the need identified by UNESCO for 18 million qualified teachers by 2015, and the dangerous trend of hiring unqualified teachers, pose barriers indeed to the provision of quality education. In Zambia, for example, unqualified teachers are hired despite qualified teachers being available because of 8% of GDP caps on salaries imposed by the World Bank. In other places qualified teachers are simply not available. Relevant curricula delivered by qualified, caring and committed teachers are also essential, as are classrooms where learning can take place; clean water and food for hungry children; sanitary and private toilets; safety to and from school. User fees are barriers for poor families. Moreover, when a family has to make a choice between sending either a boy or girl to school, it is often the girl who loses out. Girls face double, even triple jeopardy, especially in rural settings. They often labour in the family home long after the day’s work. Societal attitudes and traditional practices still serve to exclude girls. Special measures are needed. Take, for example, Sara, a 14-year-old Moroccan girl and the central figure in EI’s new documentary on child labour. The headmaster of her school knew that Sara’s family could barely afford to feed her, let alone buy textbooks. At age 12, Sara stopped coming to school, and became a live-in domestic servant. According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of child domestics in Morocco work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for hourly wages of between five and 12 cents US (0.4 to 1 dirham). The teachers’ union now provides Sara’s books, supplies and clothing. She was overjoyed to return to school. Children who receive an education of quality are more empowered to escape from poverty and, as adults, are more likely to send their children to school, not to work. If education is to be for all, it must be inclusive. It must reach out to poor and disadvantaged groups, the most vulnerable: illiterates, rural, indigenous, migrant communities, those with disabilities and HIV/AIDS affected children. The incidence of child labour among these groups is high. Solutions Teachers and their unions contribute in vital and far-reaching ways. Through daily interaction in the lives of children, teachers can and do take on a monitoring role, working with the child, the parent and the community. They are uniquely placed to educate and mobilize because they understand the linkage between the elimination of child labour and Education For All. Workers, governments and employers have a shared responsibility and must work in concert. ILO’s fair globalization and Decent Work agenda is also key. The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), working with unions, governments, employers and other international agencies, has led the way in achieving the progressive elimination of child labour by strengthening national capacities and by building a worldwide movement to combat child labour. It is an important and valued partner for the trade union movement and most certainly for EI and its members. The Global Union Federations, together with the ITUC and ILO IPEC, are necessary and willing players in the achievement of the elimination of child labour. Conclusions Poverty, education, and child labour are inextricably linked; Quality, compulsory until the minimum age of employment, free, relevant, formal education that is inclusive is the key; All forms of child labour must be the focus; Primary AND secondary education are essential; at the very least, basic education International advocacy, action and predictable aid are mandatory; stable and adequate funding is crucial; Decent work for parents means a better chance of school for children, independence, respect and dignity, and hope for a better future.