On a warm, dusty day on the Deccan plateau in April 1994, I joined Kailash Satyarthi’s Bharat Yatra, (Indian Journey), a group of 150 child labor activists part-way through its march from the southern tip of India to the heart of New Delhi, where it would arrive five months later. I didn’t realize it then, but I was witnessing the prototype of the movement that Kailash would take to a global scale four years later, and result in the biggest single step forward in history in the cause to abolish child labor.
It was hard to visualize 24 years ago that these initial attempts to mobilize masses of people behind a broad social movement would build to this moment today—a 20th anniversary commemoration at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual Conference in Geneva of the Global March, which ushered in ILO Convention 182 aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
ILO conventions set a global standard for labor rights that UN member countries are expected to adopt and enforce. Not all countries are willing to do so. But Convention 182 is now the most ratified convention in ILO history, with 181 signatory countries. As one diplomatic observer in the early 1990s said to me, looking at the burgeoning activity in India, “Kailash has built a movement—now he needs to build an organization.”
Build one he did. The Global March Against Child Labour was formed 20 years ago specifically to mobilize people worldwide to lobby for adoption of Convention 182. And finally recognizing his decades-long campaign to abolish child labor, the Nobel Committee awarded Kailash the Peace Prize in 2014.
At the commemoration this week, attended by hundreds of delegates from governments, employers and trade unions, Kailash was joined by ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, representatives of workers’ and employers’ groups, and two very special guests: Basu Rai, a former child laborer who, as a 9-year-old, was one of the original marchers who came to Geneva 20 years ago, and Zulema Lopez, a former child farm worker in the United States, who is now earning a university student.
Opening the program, Ryder noted to Kailash, “I personally remember the moment, the incredible moment 20 years ago, when you led children from around the world into the ILC to press for Convention 182.” He pointed out that even though child labor has been reduced by tens of millions since that time, 152 million children are still working, with practically no reduction in the 5–11 year age range. Indeed, hazardous child labor for that age cohort has actually increased. With the number of children injured and killed each year in hazardous labor conditions, Ryder said, “If this were a war, we’d be talking a lot more about it.”
Basu, in an impassioned address, talked about how he was orphaned at 4, joined a street gang and became a child slave before being rescued by Kailash and his activists. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and climbing on the desks and raising the slogan, ‘No more tools for tiny hands, we want books, we want toys.’ My childhood was snatched away. I’m coming here today, but I’m still afraid. I’m still afraid—and I’m a father to a 2-month-old daughter—that the world is not safe for the children.”
Zulema told the assembly: “I was a third-generation farm worker family. I first went to work in the fields when I was 7. I missed school. It was normal for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, put on a T-shirt, and work for hours in the hot sun, my back aching from carrying 30 pounds of cucumbers.”
In winding up the event, Kailash reminisced, “I remember that day when I walked in with the core marchers of the Global March who were allowed to come into the ILO, which was the first time in history the ILO opened its doors to the most exploited and most vulnerable… We were marching from exploitation to education.”
While there has been progress, much work needs to be done to eliminate child labor, as envisioned by the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, by 2025.
“Child labor is not an issue that will be solved by someone else; it’s up to you personally,” said Kailash. “It’s urgent. The childhood of children today can’t wait. And you have to believe it’s possible. It’s personal, it’s urgent, it’s possible.”
Timothy Ryan is the Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour and the Asia Regional Director for the Solidarity Center.
Rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand are challenging a ruling by a California federal district court that dismissed their case against the Thai and U.S. companies that benefited from their labor.
A coalition of human rights groups, led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of seven workers as their case goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The workers had brought their suit based in part under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.
The December ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California interpreted the TVPRA in a way that essentially ignored the “knowingly benefit” standard and instead required evidence that the U.S.-based companies actually participated in a venture to traffic the Cambodian workers into Thailand, according to Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.
The supporting brief argues, in part, that the companies knew or should have known of the widespread use of trafficked labor in the seafood sector in Thailand. Since 2008, numerous reports have exposed the trafficking of workers into Thailand to work in the shrimp industry. It would have been virtually impossible for enterprises involved in the shrimp industry not to have known of the extremely high risk of trafficking.
Following the December court ruling (Keo Ratha, et al. v. Phatthana Seafoods Co. Ltd., et al.), Keo Ratha, one of the seven men filing the suit, told Voice of America Khmer that he deeply regretted the district court’s decision.
“I’m disappointed because we thought that the U.S. court would find justice for us,” he said. “But when the court dismissed our complaint I was speechless. This is their law.”
Joining the Solidarity Center in its brief are the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Earthrights International, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, the International Labor Rights Forum and the Worker Rights Consortium.
In Tunisia’s southern Gafsa region, Naziha Kdimi, a higher education teacher, struggled for years to gain acceptance among her male union peers.
This year, Kdimi was elected assistant general secretary for a regional union body covering the area for the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)—the first woman to hold an executive position in the region.
In this video clip, Kdimi encourages union women everywhere to never give up the struggle for gender equality.
Her advice to women seeking to change male-dominated cultures that have long inhibited women from exerting leadership: Keep showing up every day. Eventually, the men will accept you. Don’t go away, because then they will have won.
The video featuring Kdimi is part of the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum, where working people around the world describe their challenges, successes, and hopes and dreams for a better world for all workers.
Released today, the two-minute video highlights the structural foundations of gender-based violence at work, a systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses. Although gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world, not enough is done to prevent it, especially at the workplace.
Some 40 domestic workers from 17 countries across North and South America and the Caribbean shared organizing tactics, hammered out resolutions and participated in Solidarity Center training on gender-based violence at work at a recent conference in São Paulo, Brazil.
A Solidarity Center gender equality training was part of the domestic workers’ conference. Credit: IDWF
The conference is one of a series of regional planning meetings domestic workers around the world are holding in advance of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) congress November 16–18 in South Africa. Domestic workers from all regions will bring recommendations to the IDWF Congress. Latin American domestic workers voted to recommend the IDWF adopt resolutions involving safety and health, strengthening leadership of Afro-descendent domestic workers where they are a majority and supporting LGBT domestic workers who face double discrimination on the job.
Delegates also nominated new leadership for the region, Andrea Morales from Nicaragua and Carmen Britez of Argentina, both former domestic workers.
In one of the most powerful moments of the conference, migrant domestic workers and Afro-descendent domestic workers shared their strategies during a panel on racial equality and, in the process, “restored dignity back to themselves and to the work they do,” says Adriana Paz, IDWF Latin America regional coordinator.
“Most domestic workers labor in modern slavery conditions without being paid but instead just provided with board and room—just like in slavery times,” says Paz, who participated in the conference. “Added to this lack of rights and freedoms, Afro-descendant domestic workers face the structural violence inflicted on them because of the intersection of their race, class and gender.”
In Brazil, 70 percent of domestic workers are Afro-descendent as are a majority of domestic workers in Colombia, who also are often internal migrants, moving from rural areas to large cities for employment.
Steps to Ensure Brazil Enforces Domestic Worker Standard
Brazil’s ratification of International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) 189 on domestic workers’ rights earlier this year led to discussions about how Brazilian domestic workers could ensure the government is in compliance with the convention. Domestic workers from countries that have ratified Convention 189 say the first step is to push for creation of employer organizations so domestic workers have a collective employer with whom to negotiate contracts.
Enforcement of domestic workers’ rights is difficult in Brazil because the constitution does not allow authorities to “inspect” private homes, a challenge Argentine domestic workers say they have addressed by sending out mobile vans in neighborhoods where they find employers with domestic workers. From the vans, union staff and labor ministry representatives discuss with employers how to formalize workers and have paperwork ready for employers and specific materials for domestic workers as well.
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