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OPA Press Release: Statement of U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman International Labor Conference, Child Labor Committee, Geneva, Switzerland [06/11/1998]

For more information call: 202/219-8211

Mr. Chairman, I offer you my best wishes as you lead the historic task before us--to draft a new convention to prohibit the worst forms of child labor. You have the able and effective support of the workers group led by Mr. Trotman and the employers group led by Mr. Botha.

But most of all you have the combined inspiration and determination that I know each and every person in this committee brings to the challenge of protecting the world's children. And I am confident that, together, we will succeed.

I am grateful to the participants here for allowing me a few minutes to speak in this hall today. I know that this committee is now fully engaged in its discussions and I do not wish to divert you from this important work, but I very much wanted to personally address the group and reinforce the message I made at the Plenary Session--the United States places great importance in this effort to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

As I look to that challenge, I can't help but see in my mind's eye all those who took part in the Global March Against Child Labor. I had the honor of welcoming the Marchers to Washington, D.C. only two weeks ago. They help remind us what our work is about. It is that human face we must remember.

Mr. Chairman, our work here is about those children. It's about the future. But our challenge is deeply rooted in the past--in the founding principle and focus of the ILO. Indeed, the struggle to stop the exploitation of children was central to the very creation of this institution. Some of the earliest ILO conventions came in response to the child labor abuses then confronting the conscience of those who sat where we sit today.

And while much has been accomplished by the ILO to stop the workplace from being a threat to children--clearly, very clearly much more needs to be done. And we, together, are about the business of doing it.

Moreover it is well worth noting that action on child labor is often a window onto other areas and priorities for this organization. Yesterday, I attended the forum on the ILO's program on "More and Better Jobs for Women". It was made quite clear in that discussion that the economic and employment prospects for women have a very important relationship to conditions that lead to child labor.

In fact, I am reminded of my prior service, some two decades ago, as the Director of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor. A Bureau that was originally founded as the Children's Bureau in the beginning of this century--when the shame of child labor compelled a response--and also led to international action by the ILO.

Because of the interrelationship between the conditions for our children and those for our women--this Bureau became devoted over time to the circumstances of women at work--and a change in its name followed.

Today, we are rededicating ourselves to our children. And we have a rare opportunity to take the struggle for the world's children to a new and higher level of commitment and action. We join together here in the absolute certainty that this is a challenge we can and must meet.

Indeed, it seems to us that if there is anything that we all agree upon it is something as basic and fundamental as the abolition of the worst forms of child labor. When we talk of child labor in this sense, we surely do not mean that no child should ever do work of any kind.

We mean no child should be placed into forced or bonded labor...no child should be brutalized by exploitation in the commercial sex trade...no child should be placed in hazardous work.

We recognize that economic opportunity for parents offers the best hope for children. But we reject the claims of those who declare that in its absence, children face only two roads--equally bleak. A road to poverty--or a road to exploitation. That is a false choice.

Child labor will not cure poverty--it is far more likely to perpetuate it. Nations cannot rise on the backs of its children. There is another way, a better way. It is the path we must find--the path that leads children to classrooms not workrooms so that they have the education and skills to perhaps enjoy a better life than their parents and grandparents.

I am pleased to be able to say that President Clinton is helping to blaze that trail. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, the President spoke for my entire country when he committed us to the struggle against abusive child labor. And I came to Geneva with clear instructions directly from the President: to underline our strong support for the negotiation of a new convention to end the worst forms of child labor.

We are engaged with you in this struggle in three ways.

First, we know that if we want to be full and effective partners in the global campaign to end intolerable child labor--we must start at home. One child working in abusive conditions is one too many. And the President has both increased resources to enforce our own laws, and added funding to help those children most at risk--particularly in agriculture--stay in school.

In addition, our Administration will work closely with Senator Tom Harkin and others in our Congress to modernize our own domestic child labor laws. We have made great progress, but in parts of my country and parts of our economy, abusive conditions persist. So we are stepping up our efforts to root out it out.

Second, we want to invest in promoting positive changes in the many countries around the world turning commitment into action. Once again, the ILO--through its International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC)--has provided hope and inspiration.

That is why President Clinton has asked the Congress to increase our IPEC contribution by ten-fold. IPEC has shown that innovative approaches to ending child labor can be found--and they can work.

Whether it is moving children from factories to schools, working to stop young girls from entering prostitution, or just getting the data that we need to better measure the problem--IPEC has helped lead the way.

Third, we understand that eliminating the worst forms of child labor will take the best efforts of us all. And that's why we support a new convention that is clear in its purpose, concise in its text and targeted to ending the worst forms of abuse. Through this convention we can help make sure that our children are nurtured not neglected--educated not exploited.

As I conclude, let me commend you once again for your work in this Committee, and wish you every success in negotiating a convention that can be both widely ratified and effective in meeting our goals. After all, there is no more defining issue for the ILO than child labor--and there is no more demanding challenge to act on behalf of the international community.

Let us remember that this issue was one of the founding objectives for the ILO and as we seek to adopt a declaration recommitting ourselves to those objectives, we should work for an outcome that reaffirms a primacy and progressive role for this institution into the next century and a declaration that unites all of us.

Some may say that much of what occurs at conferences like these won't long be remembered. But what happens in this room will. Because when our task is done--and done right--we can return to our homes, our families, our countries--and tell our children what we did here was larger than ourselves and lasting in its value.

It will live on. It will endure. Not just in words or even a convention--but, most of all, in the faces, the hopes and the dreams of children. And there is no better legacy than that.

On behalf of President Clinton, I thank you for your work and your service and I offer you our full commitment to the effort.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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