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Remarks by Kailash Satyarthi

International Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture, 28-30, July 2012, Washington D.C.

Today is a historic day. This room is full of heroines and heroes who have devoted their lives to save the most exploited children in the world. It’s a rare occasion when grassroots’ practitioners, policy makers, top experts of the subject, leaders of workers and employers, the representatives of multi-stakeholder initiatives and inter-governmental organisations have assembled together.

Today when the world is confronted with food, energy and financial crises; and challenges like global warming, ecological imbalance and terrorism, this Conference becomes even more timely and relevant. We are much more concerned about sustainable development and green economy than ever before. But how can we ignore some of the very fundamental prerequisites to mitigate such crises and address these challenges effectively?

215 million girls and boys are engaged as child labourers at the cost of their education, health, freedom and future. Education for all, decent employment for adults in healthy and safe environments and total elimination of child labour are three interrelated issues to ascertain individual's upliftment,  sustained economic growth and development of a country.

Many of us have met in the Hauge about two years ago and have reaffirmed our collective commitment for eradication of worst forms of child labour by 2016. Some of us will meet again next year in Brazil. Therefore this conference is most timely to asses and boost up our efforts.

Today, we especially are talking about 129 million children working in agriculture, 77 million of them in hazardous work. The food we eat, for chocolate bar we enjoy, the coffee we drink, cotton clothes we wear and many more items we eat and drink- we do not know how many children have been forced to spoil their childhood in producing those.

It’s very easy to be lost in statistics, but let us not forget that each of these figures that we are referring to has an innocent face with painful eyes looking at you and I, each has a breathing body which demands nutrition, safety, care and protection; and each of them has a locked-up future that must be immediately unlocked by ending child labour and proving quality education to unleash the global economic growth. 

This would be the safest investment the world can ever make for guaranteed and recurring high return  and low risk in enhancing productivity; boosting participation and share in development; creation of participatory and transparent democracies; attaining better health and nutrition; reducing child, infant and maternal mortality, and increasing life expectancies; better population control; preventing HIV/AIDS; reducing hunger; and a growing understanding of environmental responsibilities. These are not only the key development indicators but are also the driving forces for fast economic growth.

I can still recall the endless and painful tears flowing from Rakesh and his mother’s eyes on being reunited after 7years. He was trafficked for labour at an early age to Punjab in India, where he  learnt an altogether different language Punjabi. Rakesh was rescued after 7 years in slavery in agriculture farms. But, mother and son could not communicate with each other as Rakesh had forgotten his mother tongue.

The image of Abrahem, a young child labourer in Ethiopia screaming out of fear of punishment by his employer for a mistake committed is still fresh in my memory. The pig that he had taken for grazing  accidently drowned in a nearby pond. For Abrahem, this meant several years of slavery to repay the price of this “lost pig”.

The loud and vigorous chants of Amanda who was suffering from breathing problems and other serious ailments due to her work in agriculture, still reverberate in my ears. She was a child core marcher from the United States  during the global march against child labour of 1998. I have not forgotten Velucia, whose hands were horribly injured and bleeding from plucking oranges when I first met him in a village in Brazil. Velucia, rightly asked me – “how can you enjoy the juice from these oranges, when children like me have to shed their blood to pluck them? Is this correct?”

These instances are enough to make me angry. So I am angry and call upon you to be angry too.

We have failed our children and are making a mockery of ourselves by not being serious in achieving any of the goalposts that we fixed ourselves. How can we reduce the global poverty by half if about 200 million adults are jobless mainly because almost an equal number of children are occupying jobs? How can we ensure universal primary education and gender parity if millions of children are forced to work, be enslaved and trapped, trafficked, bought and sold like animals? How could education be possible without ending child labour? Can these kids be at schools and in remote fields, farms and fisheries at the same time? I fail to understand why the total elimination of child labour has not been on the top global and political agenda.

It’s true that this category of child labourers is invisible and hard-to-reach due to the traditional mindset towards agriculture work, remote locations, limited access to education, inadequate rural development and inappropriate legal and social protection measures. But equally true is the urgency to tackle this problem.

Firstly, the reckless use of chemicals, intoxicated water, machines and electricity has made agriculture work much more hazardous and risky, particularly for children. Secondy, the emerging trends like multinationalisation and fast transformation of traditional agriculture into agro industry has resulted in marginalization & disempowerment of farming community. They have no control of the ecomonics of their produce and no role in decision making. So the civil society must be practice rather thanbeing reactive. Thirdly, even in subsistence agriculture, the farm produce still filters into the supply chains and the markets. Therefore it would be a serious mistake in allowing their child to work at the cost of health and education.

Fourthly, the local and multinational corporations find it convenient to hide behind the excuse of supply chain. This is not acceptable. Simply, not acceptable. They have to respect the laws of land as well as international standards without fail. It is good that they engage the civil society in monitoring their supply chains. But it must go deeper than that into how they do their business. 

Fifthly, education has always been a key to social & gender justice, empowerment and prosperity but it has become inevitable for existence in the present age of knowledge economy.

Dear sisters and brothers, abolition of child labour is possible and within our reach. We have already proven this. If the number of child labour could be brought down from 250 million to 215, and if 70 million children remain out of school today compared to 130 million only a decade ago, who can say that it is impossible?

What we need now are five key things. The first and foremost   is to strengthen the worldwide moment against child labour. This has been resolved time and again but no serious efforts have been made. If you compare child labor portfolio with other important issues like HIV& AID or health or environment or even education, this very very tiny despite remarkable work  done by many actors in their worlds.

We can't remain satisfied only with small or big projects, researches or reports. We primarily need strong and vibrant civil society and  its genuine partnerships at all levels. This  is not possible without the substantial political & financial support from some engaged governments.

Secondly, we need bold initiatives, and not business-as-usual approach in admitting and assessing the problem in our countries. This can be done by identifying gaps, by amending or making laws and increasing national budgets and ODA substantially. We must show courage to set yearly benchmarks both nationally and internationally.

Thirdly, we need leadership. The politicians and labour ministers have to demonstrate leadership. Similarly unions, employers’ organisations, NGOs and others too have to exhibit leadership. Each one of us has to prove as a leader in his/her field. Fourthly, we need to build genuine partnerships considering the challenges I mentioned before. It’s essential that we inculcate and strengthen a culture, behaviour and practice of working together.

And finally, we need a true sense of urgency. Think for a moment that your own daughter, son, sister, brother or grandchild could be one of those 129 million. What will you do then? Sit and watch, or act right away?  We must build a strong collective commitment today to meet out these challenges. As true fighters, we must pledge now to bring freedom, smile and all opportunities that our own children deserve.