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ILO seeks to spur discussion on child labor

Reuters - February 25, 1997

Amsterdam – International experts begin a two-day conference in Amsterdam Wednesday to consider how to eradicate the most exploitative forms of child labor such as child prostitution, debt bondage and slavery.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), which is co-hosting the conference with the Dutch government, estimates that more than 250 million children around the world are working full-time, many under extremely hazardous conditions.

Their plight will be discussed in Amsterdam by some 200 government ministers, labor union leaders, officials of employer organizations and representatives of working children.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) says most, but by no means all, working children live in developing countries.

In India alone, Labor Ministry officials say some 18 million children are at work rather than at school, while children's rights activists put the figure at around 55 million.

Unicef estimates that in Africa one child in three works and in Latin America one in five.

Several affected countries have recently been stirred to action by growing international outrage.

In December, India said it had taken 150,000 child laborers out of hazardous industries under a plan to eliminate children from such jobs by 2002.

Bangladesh's garment industry, faced with U.S. import restrictions, now also says it is free of child labor.

And Feb. 14, the ILO, child welfare advocates and sporting goods manufacturers announced a plan to end the use of child labor in making soccer balls in Pakistan.

Concerted action on child labor has been complicated by the political dimension of the debate.

Developing nations are suspicious of Western interference in the area of workers' rights, fearing this will undermine their main advantage in world trade – cheap labor.

Some contend Western nations are using the issue to disguise nascent protectionism and to gain unfair trade advantages. Nonetheless, developing countries will be well represented in Amsterdam, with the Labor ministers of India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Thailand, Tanzania and Egypt all due to attend.