Breaking the vicious circle of hopelessness: what the EU can do to eliminate child labour

Only today, the ILO presented its Global Report. The sad conclusion is that hardly any progress has been made. Child labour is still widespread: over 200 million children perform work that contravenes international standards for child labour. I believe the European Union should do more to combat child labour. What we need is a comprehensive approach that makes better use of all available instruments, including political dialogue, development cooperation and trade measures.

Thank you Ms Hautala,

I am delighted to be here at your Subcommittee meeting this afternoon. It brings back happy memories: in the early nineties I was an MEP and a substitute member of this committee. You could say that my involvement with human rights from a European perspective started here. I value your efforts in moving the human rights agenda forward. And I value the opportunity to exchange views on how the EU can advance the cause of human rights, in particular the elimination of child labour.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On taking office, over three years ago, I resolved to make human rights the centrepiece of Dutch foreign policy. For two main reasons. Firstly, I consider it a moral obligation to promote human rights worldwide. After all, human rights apply to all people, in all places, at all times. It is simply the right thing to do. And secondly, it’s in our own best interests to promote human rights around the globe. Respect for human rights contributes to security and development – the violation of human rights causes instability and stagnation. As a trading nation, the Netherlands benefits from a stable international environment. Promoting human rights is conducive to trade and business. So idealism and realism are not opposites; they go together perfectly well.

Human rights are being eroded around the world, so promoting them is all the more urgent. The global balance of power is changing fast. We are moving towards a system in which global and regional powers operate side by side. Holding on to the values that are so dear to us and to the world’s people presents a major challenge. Emerging powers do not always share our views on fundamental principles like freedom, democracy and human rights. That’s why I have a made a conscious effort to uphold these values. The European Union, which is first and foremost a community of values, should defend these values too! I have high hopes that Catherine Ashton will contribute to a more coherent and effective human rights policy. And I am also optimistic about the newly established External Action Service. I have noted this Committee’s efforts to strengthen the human rights dimension of the EEAS. And I agree with you: the EU should make a positive difference in this world by actively promoting the values that inspired our integration.

In November 2007, I presented a human rights strategy to the Dutch Parliament entitled ‘Human Dignity for All.’ This strategy contains over one hundred concrete objectives, which reflect various priorities. One of these is the promotion of children’s rights. Children are particularly vulnerable and easily abused. It is all the more important that they are made aware of their rights, so that they can seek help in asserting them. Children need our support in exercising their rights! Over the past three years, the Netherlands has actively addressed the issue of violence against children. We have done so at the United Nations. And we have done so bilaterally, by supporting local initiatives and giving a voice to local human rights defenders. Here, at the EU, we have pressed for the rapid adoption of and compliance with the EU Guidelines on the Rights of the Child.

We have also taken a firm stand when it comes to eliminating child labour. Only today, the ILO presented its Global Report. The sad conclusion is that hardly any progress has been made! Child labour is still widespread: over 200 million children perform work that contravenes international standards for child labour. Most are victims of the worst forms of child labour: bonded and forced labour, slavery, prostitution and drug trafficking, and harmful and dangerous work. Besides depriving children of their rights, child labour also harms their prospects for the future. Children who work rarely attend school. So they run the risk of lifelong disadvantage, which they then pass on to their own children. Child labour is a vicious circle of hopelessness.

We need to break that circle. The Netherlands has taken the lead in the campaign against child labour with a whole range of initiatives. We advocate a comprehensive policy: every opportunity to eradicate child labour must be used to the full.

At national level, we have made some progress. The Netherlands spends 13% of its development budget on education. We recently undertook to focus on the needs of child labourers in our development policy on education, as education is key to a better future. The Dutch government has also done much to promote corporate social responsibility in this area. And we have not hesitated to impose binding measures as well. For example, companies that receive government grants must declare that they and their primary supplier do not make use of child labour. The Dutch government also has a sustainable procurement policy, based on ILO and environmental criteria. We are also hosting a big international conference on child labour in The Hague that starts today.

But national efforts alone can never put an end to child labour. We need to work together to achieve tangible and lasting progress and meet the ILO’s goal of eradicating the worst forms of child labour by 2016. I believe the European Union should do more to combat child labour. Two years ago, in May 2008, the General Affairs and External Relations Council asked the Commission to investigate ways for the EU to step up its efforts to ban child labour. Your Parliament also adopted a very helpful resolution urging the EU to take an active approach and recently held a hearing on child labour. These initiatives are most welcome!

Last February, the Commission issued its report. Two of its conclusions stand out. First, the Commission found that the EU could do more to combat child labour. Second, it endorsed a comprehensive approach and proposed better use of all available instruments, including political dialogue, development cooperation and trade measures. To me, these are very encouraging conclusions. I have always argued for a comprehensive approach that does not exclude any instruments. I believe that a mix of instruments is needed to achieve the best results. That is why the Netherlands wants strong human rights clauses to be incorporated in the EU’s contractual relations with third countries. Like the Free Trade Agreements we have just concluded with Peru and Colombia. Here too, the support of the European Parliament was very helpful.

Now that the Commission’s report is out, how should we proceed? My aim is to have the Council adopt clear and forward-looking conclusions at its next meeting on 14 June. These should help keep the issue of child labour firmly on the political agenda, making the best possible use of the momentum generated by the release of the Commission’s report. The conclusions should also indicate the main thrust of EU policy to combat child labour in different areas. I am thinking along the following lines:

  • The EU should always raise the issue of child labour in its political dialogues with third countries.
  • Child labour should be mainstreamed in the EU’s development programme. We also propose to allocate funding from the EU Human Rights Fund to combat child labour.
  • A certification scheme could be developed as part of corporate social responsibility efforts.
  • EU public procurement contracts should include clauses that oblige companies to demonstrate supply-chain compliance with international standards.
  • And finally, we should also look at trade measures, for example by making better use of the GSP and the GSP+ to promote implementation of ILO conventions on child labour.

Trade measures could also include a sales ban on products made using the worst forms of child labour as defined by the ILO. I believe such a ban should be part of the package. In order to be effective we need both carrots and a stick. I know there is a lot of resistance out there, but I am prepared to defend a sales ban as an integral and feasible part of the EU’s response to child labour – something we all agree is unacceptable in the 21st century. A sales ban is not without precedent: we have one on seal skins, after all. If we dare to protect the world’s seals, surely we should dare to protect the world’s children!

Ladies and gentlemen,

These measures should be seen not in isolation, but as part of a comprehensive package to combat child labour. As Members of the European Parliament and of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, I hope that you will keep the pressure up and that you too will advocate a comprehensive approach. An approach using all the instruments the Union has at its disposal, including trade measures. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament is now co-legislator on trade issues. So your voice will be crucial in getting the message across that a sales ban can be effective in the fight against child labour.

Thank you.