ETUC adopts resolution on tackling child labour in Europe

In October 2000, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted a resolution on the issue of child labour in Europe. It highlights the causes and forms of child labour in Europe and outlines a number of strategies for action. In particular, the resolution recommends the negotiation of a ban on child labour in Europe between ETUC and the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE).

On 25-26 October 2000, the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted a resolution on child labour in Europe. According to ETUC, the aim of the resolution is to highlight the fact that child labour is an issue that is pertinent in Europe, as well as in the developing world. The resolution states: "One of the greatest misconceptions surrounding child labour today is that it is a phenomenon confined to the developing world. The fact is that it exists not only in the developing world but also here on our doorsteps, in Europe."

ETUC youth seminar

The issue of child labour was raised by a special ETUC youth seminar on the subject on 15–19 April 2000 in Lisbon and a report on this seminar has been recently published. A further seminar on child labour was held on 24–28 November in Estoril, Portgual.

The report from the April seminar states that "child labour in Europe is more prevalent than it appears" and that one of the biggest problems in tackling child labour issues stems from the fact that there are no precise statistics on how many children are being used for labour. The seminar also identified a lack of understanding and a lack of enforcement of the many legal instruments in this area at the European and international levels:

  • International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 138 (1973) on the minimum age for access to employment has been ratified by most European countries, including Turkey on 30 October 1998. However, it has not been ratified by the EU Member States Austria and the UK, in addition to the Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland;
  • ILO Convention No. 182 (1999) on the worst forms of child labour is expected to be ratified in many countries soon. Further, the European Commission issued a Recommendation on this Convention on 15 September 2000. This calls on all Member States which have not yet done so to ratify the Convention and requests that Member States inform the Commission by September 2001 of the steps taken to achieve ratification of the Convention;
  • the Council of Europe's 1961 European Social Charter, which was revised in 1996, has been ratified in all western European countries, except Switzerland. While some western European governments are beginning to also ratify the revised version, an increasing number of central and eastern European countries are ratifying the 1961 Charter. However, countries that have ratified the Charter are permitted to exempt themselves from certain provisions and Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Turkey and the UK have refused to accept Article 7.1 – this regulates the minimum age for employment at 15, subject to exceptions for children employed in prescribed light work without harm to their health, morals or education; and
  • EU Council Directive 94/33/EC of 22 June 1994 on the protection of young people at work has not been transposed by all Member States, with Italy and Luxembourg not having done so, despite the fact that the deadline for transposition was 22 June 1996.

Adopting the resolution

The ETUC executive committee decided to act on the findings of the ETUC youth seminar and thus adopted the resolution on 25–26 October 2000. The resolution states that a variety of factors contribute to the existence of child labour, including poverty and "consumerism". The resolution highlights as some of the worst forms of child labour commercial sexual exploitation of children, sexual and physical abuse of child sex workers, and the employment of children under hazardous conditions. It also states that in central and eastern European countries, the transition to a market economy, increasing poverty and the restructuring of welfare systems have made the economic exploitation of children more likely. The resolution also comments that children often, successfully and unsuccessfully, combine school and work as a result of increased consumerism.

ETUC believes that it has a clear responsibility to fight for the rights of children who are in employment: "For years, trade unions across Europe have been to the forefront of the struggle to stop child labour. While undoubtedly great success has been achieved in many countries, too many children in Europe are still denied their rights. In the new millennium, the ETUC must renew and intensify its activities in the fight against child labour."

Collecting information and data

The ETUC resolution highlights the need for more information and reliable data on child labour issues and states that there is a "compelling need for further research" on child labour and a need for "strengthened political commitment" to eradicate the problem. ETUC recommends that social partners in the Member States define the priority issues and identify key problems for action in the area of child labour in each country.

The Resolution also calls on the European Commission, the European Parliament and the other European institutions, in tandem with the ILO and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), to focus more on the issue of child labour in Europe.

Implementing existing measures

The resolution also calls for the proper implementation and enforcement of existing legislation on child labour. ETUC is therefore demanding:

  • ratification and full implementation of ILO Convention No. 138 on the minimum age for access to employment;
  • ratification and full implementation of ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour within the shortest possible time-frame. ETUC wants all countries across Europe to ratify this Convention and adopt measures at national level, including increased workplace inspections, harsh sentences for exploiters of child labour and access to education for children;
  • full implementation and transposition of the 1994 EU Directive on the protection of young people at work; and
  • full implementation of the Council of Europe's revised 1996 European Social Charter.

Social inclusion strategy

The resolution contends that the persistence of child labour and low levels of participation in education can be explained by the fact that children are forced to work because of family poverty. According to ETUC, children can contribute as much as 20%-25% of the family income.

ETUC has therefore called for the European strategy on social inclusion specifically to support young people and children. The social inclusion programme is part of the social policy agenda which was adopted by the Employment and Social Affairs Council of Ministers on 27-28 November 2000 (EU0012287F). The aim of the strategy is to prevent and eradicate poverty and exclusion and to promote the integration and participation of all people in economic and social life.

Promoting education

ETUC also believes that education is a key solution to eliminate child labour and that access to a proper education could bring about a decline in the extent of child labour. It contends that education systems that combine schooling with vocational training would help young people gain the opportunity to acquire economically useful skills.

Further, ETUC believes that the problems of absenteeism in schools can be tackled by promoting stronger links between labour inspectorates and schools. In addition, it is calling for special attention to be paid to the needs of poor and marginalised children, including recent immigrants, in order to help such children achieve their full potential within the education system.

Trade union action

In the resolution, ETUC has called on its affiliated organisations to:

  • press for an agreement between ETUC and the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), banning the use of child labour in Europe;
  • include clauses prohibiting child labour in collective agreements and organise so-called "name and shame" publicity campaigns against companies which use child labour;
  • highlight the paradox between youth unemployment and school children in employment and seek to replace each child labourer with an unemployed adult;
  • recruit as members all young people who are working legally within the terms of the relevant ILO Conventions and the 1994 EU Directive on the protection of young people at work. ETUC wants young people who are engaged in the worst forms of child labour to be moved out of damaging work and into appropriate education or training or, depending on their age, into non-harmful work;
  • recognise the role of trade unions in organising and informing people, including young people, of their rights; and
  • insist that the scope of action for labour inspectors across Europe is strengthened and better resourced.

Commentary

The issue of child labour has come to the fore at both international and Member State levels during the past few years. It has been addressed by: employers and unions within the context of European sectoral dialogue (EU9911213F and EU9810131F); UNICE (EU9807117N); the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (EU0009270F); and the European Union (EU0008267F).

The debate on child labour has also been raised at Member State level in countries such as: Belgium (BE9805236N); Italy (IT9804162N and IT9810185N); Portugal (PT0012124N, PT9807185F and PT9902128F); and Sweden (SE9802171N).

These developments alone show that child labour is recognised as a serious problem across Europe. ETUC's recent resolution is therefore to be welcomed as a positive step in raising the profile of the issue further and in helping to tackle the problem. However, the problem can only be really resolved if ETUC's words are put into practice and its recommendations are taken seriously by trade unions, employers' organisations and governments across Europe (Neil Bentley, IRS).

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