Creating the choices needed to end forced labour and child labour
By Simrin Singh, Senior Specialist on Child Labour, ILO DWT for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific, 29 April 2015
The leather tanneries of northern India, and the workers were Muslim. The fishing boats and shrimp peeling sheds of Thailand, and the workers were Burmese. The agricultural lands of Nepal, and the workers were Kamaiyas (a caste of landless bonded agricultural labourers). What do these workers have in common? Sadly, a lot. The world of work for these men and women, and their children is a world where child labour and forced labour are part of the inter-generational reality, where alternative options are seemingly none, where the work is “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning), and where a centuries old culture of exploitation of minority or underprivileged segments of society is deeply rooted. The fact that child labour and forced labour are illegal unfortunately carries little weight.
Creating choices out of the wretchedness of this world of work is a key part of the solution. Not just for the children and their parents, but also for those that employ them, and those whose duty it is to protect human rights. Simply targeting parent and child victims of forced and child labour with educational or income generating services may help them in the short term, but the long term culturally fuelled supply and demand side factors would continue to rear their ugly head. Systemic change is needed. Transforming the work itself to make it decent is a good starting point. A multi-stakeholder engagement and response is essential, coupled with a full appreciation of the varied motivations of these groups, and a quest for suitable alternatives in pursuit of decent work. And time is needed, plenty of it.
Over the years, the ILO has worked to tackle forced labour and child labour in the leather tanneries of India, the fishing and shrimp peeling operations of Thailand, and the agricultural lands of Nepal. The work has provided real alternatives to forced and child labour to the very multi-stakeholders that often stated to us at the onset that ‘there is no other choice”. The ILO’s work focused precisely on creating real choices with thousands of workers and their employers benefitting from these.
Allow me for a moment to unpack the word “choice” here. I often hear that it is the parent’s choice to send their children to work, or it is the adult workers choice to work in a given industry under perverse conditions tantamount to forced labour. The word choice is an especially loaded one when it comes to forced labour as having a choice in their employment implies not being in a forced labour situation. In reality, those choices are not really choices, so the ILO has worked hard to help identify and realise real choices.
Here are some actions that have helped create real choices for the victims of and those vulnerable to forced and child labour in these three sectors and countries:
- Understanding the business model to assess why there was a reliance on child and forced labour. In Thailand a supply chain analysis shed valuable light on where exploitation was rife;
- Defining and assessing the extent of the problem so that actions are well framed, commonly understood, and most responsive. Baseline studies were carried out in all three areas capturing child labour prevalence and dimensions of forced labour;
- Reducing hazards and safety and health risks associated with the work. Sometimes simple workplace and work method improvements can make a huge difference in productivity. The tanneries in India made changes to workplace ventilation and provided personal protective gear to minimize exposure to highly harmful chemicals;
- Creating child friendly spaces for children to learn while parents worked. This also maximized access to education for older girls who were often kept at home to care for siblings. In Thailand this has allowed many Burmese mothers to work while their daughters learn;
- Providing access to education and life skills training to children and sometimes their illiterate mothers so that over time they are equipped and empowered to challenge longstanding cultural norms of exploitation and vulnerability. In all three countries, a first step was to find children that were working and those at risk and see that they received an education, whether in a formal or non-formal education setting;
- Improving livelihoods for adult workers. In Nepal, agricultural land was granted by the Government for farming to the Kamaiyas. The ILO provided training on how to manage finances and improve farming methods, and the marketability of agricultural products to increase profitability;
- Strengthening law enforcement. How to detect violations and respond to them. In all three countries, labour inspectors, the police, and social workers were trained on the laws and how to respond to these appropriately within their capacities;
- Providing legal redress and creating case history for future legal reference and action. In Thailand, the now infamous case of the devastatingly abused Cambodian child domestic labourer living and working in forced labour conditions was a landmark prosecution paving the way for future such legal action;
- Organizing workers so they have a common platform to understand, protect, and bargain for their rights. This was particularly a challenge in Thailand where the workers were not nationals of Thailand and hence cannot organize. So, they joined hands with a Thai union and migrant workers associations to fend for their rights;
- Organizing employers so that they too have a common platform to negotiate, institute changes, and keep each other in check. The leather tannery employers in the Muslim dominated town of northern India came together, jointly developed a Code of Conduct prohibiting child labour, and shared tips on safer work environments and conditions; and
- Creating space to bring to the table multi-stakeholders to channel grievances without fear of retribution, negotiate, and find mutually beneficial solutions. Such a multi-stakeholder forum now exists in Thailand for the seafood sector, and includes workers, employers, government, civil society, and even international buyers concerned with stemming any use of child or forced labour in the industry. They have a Roadmap charting actions each stakeholder must take individually and collectively.
These actions have led to happier, healthier and exploitation free lives for many workers and their families. But the job is not entirely done. These ILO projects have indeed helped give workers and employers choices out of forced labour and child labour, but it would be too presumptuous to state that deep seated attitudes and practices have entirely changed within a span of a few years. Trying not to sound cliché here, but the fact is that what remains a real challenge is the time needed to alter century’s old thinking and practices. With each “batch” of workers and children protected, a new batch will come in the absence of a sustained, long term and systemic approach. Multi-stakeholder commitment is essential. Short term projects offering quick fixes simply cannot result in the systemic changes required to crush centuries old cultural norms and traditions that deem forced labour and child labour by certain segments of society as the norm. Nevertheless, they do offer genuine opportunities to set in motion elements of a longer term, perhaps even inter-generational effort, to finally see an end to forced labour and child labour.