Education International
Education International

Speech by Fred van Leeuwen, EI General Secretary and Chairperson of the Council of Global Unions at the International Conference for Child Rights Organiser and Campaigners, 20-21 February 2008, New Delhi, India

published 20 February 2008 updated 20 February 2008

Some time ago I had a dinner conversation with the Chief Executive Officer of a Dutch Brewery with plants all over South Asia that turned sour. He talked about their booming business in Vietnam and Cambodia, casually mentioning the employment of children by his company, which he believed was as inevitable as it had been in the nineteenth century in Europe. I was startled. I protested.

But I was unable to persuade him, a father of three school age children, an active member of his local church in the Dutch bible belt, that he was deadly wrong, - morally and legally. We are saving these children, he said, we employ them and provide basic schooling at the same time. We give them the education which you people (and he pointed his finger at me) are unable to provide. Without us they would be working in the fields with no future. I (of course) was the fundamentalist teacher trade union activist, he was the benevolent brewer. We both were wrong. I was wrong because these young children indeed were given a real opportunity to escape poverty; he was wrong because children’s education should not depend on them being employed by his company. Few would disagree today that children should be learning, not working. No longer can we accept that the coffee we drink, the carpets we walk on or the shoes we wear, should be produced at some point in the supply chain by child labour. At this conference we will, I am sure, not just affirm that principle, we will also try to find new and better ways to achieve it. Let me thank BWI for having taken the initiative of convening this meeting, for bringing us together here in New Delhi and for putting child labour in a rights based context. It helps us remember that children’s rights are not only about child labour, they are also about child abuse, they are also about trafficking, about the health of our children, about their safety, about their education. We are all aware that this conference is organized in a country which is trying hard to stamp out child labour and to recognize the rights of all its children. And we commend India for the legislation it has put in place and the measures it has taken to stop exploitation. But the achievement of the rights of children is not just a challenge for low income countries. Some industrial economies are not fully applying the international standards protecting children, either. We are concerned about reduced accessibility of health care and education, we are worried about increasing inequalities victimizing children from minority groups, we are appalled by the treatment of refugee children by some rich countries, including detaining them. Let me say this: The ability to respect the rights of children and to treat them with dignity is not determined by the stage of social and economic development. It is a matter of decency. It is a matter of civilized behaviour and of moral standing. The trade union movement, nationally and internationally, has a special responsibility in helping the achievement of the rights of children in all countries and by putting an end to child labour once and for all. When we established the International Trade Union Confederation in Vienna one and a half year ago, and the Council of Global Unions one year ago, we called for a new trade union internationalism, mobilizing all trade unions, all trade union members, to engage them in a global combat against poverty, repression, injustice, inequality, in a mission to accomplish democracy, human rights and core labour standards. The eradication of child labour is, if you will, one of our first targets; it is placed high on the hit list of this new trade union internationalism. Apart from ITUC there are four Global Unions that are very active in fighting child labour in their sectors: - The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), - the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF), - the Union Network International (UNI) and - the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI). It goes without saying that my own organization, Education International, and all our affiliates are just as determined to help move children from workplaces to classrooms. While the global unions form a strong force in the international community for advocacy, political pressure and action, we can make greater impact if we intensify our cooperation, coordinate our activities better, and extend our partnerships to civil society organizations. For some of us this is not at all new, but for others it is. Let me say that trade unions and civil society organizations are most of the time a perfect match when it comes to campaigning. An excellent example is the Global Campaign for Education, an initiative taken ten years ago by Education International, the Global March Against Child Labour, Oxfam International and Action Aid. The global campaign has been able to mobilize many millions of people around the globe, and although I do not want to hide that we have had our difficulties in coping with NGO typicalities - and they with ours – this partnership has made a difference, has been worth the investment. This brings me to my final comment, namely that child labour and education are like communicating vessels. Education is up, child labour is down. Education is down, child labour is up. The link is evident. The achievement of universal primary education is crucial to the elimination of child labour. We have now passed the half-way point in the 15 year program to achieve the MDG of primary education for all children by the year 2015. But most countries are still far from the half-way mark. There are several reasons for this shortfall. The first one is failure of governments to engage with social partners at national level. Trade unions can contribute mightily and are ready to do so, but all too often politics, let me say petty politics, keeps them at a distance, instead of engaging with them. The second reason is that too many governments are tempted by stop-gap solutions to confront the growing shortage of qualified teachers. Engaging unqualified individuals and asking them to stand in front of a group of children is not how we want to do education. Education for All is about quality and it is about basic minimum standards. Those cannot be sacrificed when trying to recruit and train some of the 18 million teachers the world needs to achieve Education for All goals. Yes, the task before us is immense. Each of our organizations has to take responsibility and to play its part in moving children from work to school, whether through advocating, mobilizing, or developing education programs. But let me caution you. Moving children from work to school means bringing them into our national education systems. This implies that we must strengthen and improve the public school systems in stead of establishing our own (private) schools and thus developing our own alternative parallel school systems. What ever happened to my friend the brewer? I think he is doing very well. I read in the newspaper that he is now I believe the second largest beer seller in the world. So I guess that his schooling activities are up as well. Drinking more beer to achieve Education for All. Something to keep in mind. Some of us may find this an attractive proposition. But seriously, as they say here in India: Children should learn, not earn. And school is a good place for work. We cannot afford to fail. We count on all of you.