2014 World Day Against Child Labor Speech by Tom Harkin on the Senate Floor

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) delivered this speech on the Senate floor on  – June 12, 2014:

Mr. President, today, June 12, 2014, is the day set aside by the International Labor Organization to bring attention to the tragic predicament of millions of children across the globe who continue to be trapped in forced and abusive labor, often in extremely hazardous conditions.

So today is the World Day Against Child Labor. It is a day set aside every year globally for people to take a look at what is happening to kids around the globe who are forced into very abusive and exploitative labor conditions.

I think we should obviously think about these children more than just one day a year. We should think about them every day.

In my travels I have seen the scourge of forced and abusive child labor firsthand. Previously on the floor–going back for almost 20 years–I have spoken about how shocked I was to see the deplorable conditions under which some of these kids are forced to work. I have witnessed this personally in places from South Asia to Latin America, to Africa.

These pictures I have in the Chamber are, as a matter of fact, pictures I took myself. This picture was taken in a rug-making place in Kathmandu, Nepal. We were told there were no children being forced into this kind of labor, but under the cover of darkness, on a Sunday night–it was probably after about 8 o’clock in the evening–we were able to make entry into one of these back-alley places, and this is what we came across: young people, girls and boys, some as young as 8 years of age, working at these looms. I remind you, this is at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. They lived in barracks. They were housed, kind of stacked in barracks, so they could not leave, they could not go anywhere, they could not see their families.

Here is another picture of some older girls. These are young teenage girls working at the same place. I did not take that picture because this is me in the picture. This picture was taken by Rosemary Gutierrez, my staff person.

So I witnessed this firsthand. Even though we were told no such thing existed, we found it did exist.

This witnessing I have done in all these places has also been a call to action, a call to become a voice for these kids. Since 1992, when I first introduced the first bill to ban all products made by abusive and exploitative child labor, I have been leading this effort in the Senate.

Since the introduction of the bill in 1992, we have made progress in raising awareness about abusive and exploitive child labor, and we have significantly reduced the number of kids working in these hazardous conditions.

This effort received a big boost through the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182, a treaty calling for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.

In June 1999, President Clinton traveled to Geneva to support and sign this treaty. I was proud to accompany him on this historic trip when, for the first time in history, the world spoke with one voice in opposition to abusive and exploitative child labor. Countries from across the political, economic, and religious spectrum came together to proclaim unequivocally that abusive and exploitative child labor is a practice that will not be tolerated and must be abolished.

After returning from that trip with President Clinton, I worked with Senator Jesse Helms in the Senate–he was then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–to bring this treaty before the full Senate. Just 5 months later, the Senate unanimously gave its advice and consent, in a 96-to-0 vote, to ratify this treaty.

I have to digress for a minute. We have another treaty that hopefully we will be bringing up soon; that is, the U.N. treaty on the rights of people with disabilities–the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

There has been a lot of talk about sovereignty, that we can’t give up our sovereignty. That is just a red herring. I would say that many Senators who are here today voted on that 96-to-0 vote and nobody ever raised an issue about sovereignty. Have we lost our sovereignty since we joined that treaty? Not one speck. So why is it we are so concerned about some sovereignty issue when it deals with people with disabilities but we weren’t in 1999 when we voted unanimously, Republicans and Democrats, when it dealt with exploitative child labor? So I just want to make that point for people to consider when we, hopefully, bring up the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities sometime this summer.

With that historic treaty on exploitative child labor, the global community rejected the argument that abusive and exploitative child labor is a practice that can be excused by a country’s poor economic circumstances.

In pushing the United States to lead by example, I worked with the Clinton administration to issue Executive order 13126, the “Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced and Indentured Child Labor.” This Executive order, in effect since 1999, prohibits the U.S. Government from procuring items made by forced or indentured child labor.

I have always believed that trade agreements–on the right terms–promise many broadly shared benefits and opportunities for all. That is why I have worked hard to improve the labor provisions in various trade measures, concentrating particularly on combating abusive and exploitative child labor.

Thereafter, in 2000, during consideration of the Trade and Development Act, I again worked with Senator Helms to amend the Generalized System of Preferences–GSP–so that “efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor” would be included as a criterion and condition for receiving trade benefits. That is in the law.

Additionally, that amendment also mandated that the Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau–called ILAB–the U.S. Government’s foremost authority on child labor, must produce an annual report in which our government formally monitors and documents the effort or lack of effort of 144 countries and territories receiving U.S. trade benefits to meet their international commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. This amendment enshrined into law something I had been working on for years through the previous Department of Labor reports.

I intended for this report to bring countries to account, to shine a spotlight on their need to reform their national laws, and to put in place safety nets for those trapped in the worst forms of child labor. The aim is not punitive but, rather, to jump-start individual and collective action. I wanted this report to be equal in stature–and in impact–to the State Department’s human rights report, and we are well on our way to achieving that status.

On the technical assistance side, ILAB has funded 269 technical cooperation projects to combat exploitative child labor in over 90 countries around the world. Think about that. We have funded 269 projects to combat child labor in over 90 countries around the world. As a result of these efforts, about 1.7 million children have been rescued from child labor through the provision of education and training services and livelihood support for their families.

Let’s be clear. Whether we are talking about trafficking of children for sexual exploitation or for purposes of forced labor in dangerous, abusive circumstances, the outcome is the same. These children are robbed of their childhood, robbed of their education, robbed of their future. And in the countries where this takes place, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.

A nation can neither achieve nor sustain prosperity on the backs of its children. In the global economy, the exploitation of children must not be tolerated under any circumstances or for any reason.

When children are exploited for the economic gains of others, everybody loses–the children lose, their families lose, their country loses, the world loses. When even one child is exploited, every one of us is diminished. That is why in 2001, after reading investigative reports by Knight-Ridder exposing the magnitude of forced child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa, I resolved to do what we could to end this tragic exploitation of children.

Together with Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, we engaged the major chocolate companies in lengthy, intense negotiations. The result is what has become known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol–a public-private partnership to tackle the problem of child labor on nearly 1.5 million small cocoa farms in four African countries, beginning with Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

One might ask why we are so interested in that. Think about this: 60 percent of all of the chocolate consumed in America–think about our Hershey bars, the chocolates we eat, the cocoa we make, chocolate that goes into cakes, whatever it is–60 percent of all of that we consume in America comes from two countries: the Ivory Coast and Ghana. How many people, when they bite into that chocolate or eat that chocolate bar or that piece of chocolate cake or drink some cocoa in the morning, know they got that through abusive child labor–kids 10 years of age with knife cuts, machetes taking off their fingers, not being allowed to go to school, forced to work in terrible conditions in these cocoa fields just so we can have chocolate to eat. Is that something we are proud of?

So we developed this protocol to begin the process of getting them out of this kind of work.

Again, we have made some progress. The joint efforts of the stakeholders failed to rise to a level to match the magnitude of the challenge. This is what an independent study by Tulane University in 2010 concluded:

Despite the concerted efforts of the various stakeholders–one of them being us– it is evident that much more work is required and the majority of children exposed to the worst forms of child labor remains unreached by the remediation activities currently in place.

That was reported by Tulane University. The study noted that over 1 million children were trapped in exploitative labor in the cocoa sector of just those two countries.

I was determined to take steps to accelerate our progress. To that end, in September of 2010 we worked–again with ILAB–to develop a framework of action that sets the goal of reducing the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa industry in those two countries, Ivory Coast and Ghana, to reduce it by 70 percent by 2020. The framework is a cooperative effort by the governments of the United States, Ivory Coast, Ghana, the international labor organizations, the cocoa industry, and civil society groups, including labor unions. To initially fund this effort, the U.S. Government agreed to provide $10 million in new funding. In turn, the international chocolate and cocoa industry has committed an additional $20 million toward this endeavor.

This is truly a historic step with the key stakeholders–the national governments, the industry, the Department of Labor–working as partners to intensify efforts to combat the scourge of child labor in the cocoa fields. Together, key stakeholders have undertaken a sustainable remediation process that includes better schooling and training opportunities for these young people, measures to improve occupational safety and health related to cocoa production, and livelihood services to vulnerable families.

Additionally, the framework creates true accountability. It establishes benchmarks with audits and puts in place a credible, transparent monitoring system in 100 percent of cocoa-growing regions in the two countries. The stakeholders also produce an annual report documenting programs in the field.

I am proud of ILAB’s determined work in reducing the worst forms of child labor. We should all be proud of these efforts. We and our partners around the world have made significant progress in the monumental task of eliminating this scourge of child labor. Since the year 2000, we have reduced the number of child laborers from 246 million to 168 million–a reduction of almost one-third, or 78 million.

I especially wish to thank former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis for her great leadership during this period of time that we were hammering out these agreements and these frameworks. I also thank the present Secretary of Labor Tom Perez for his continued support and leadership of ILAB. I might also mention Carol Pier, who heads the International Labor Affairs Bureau, for her dynamic leadership in working to reduce these worst forms of child labor not just in Ghana and the Ivory Coast but around the world.

I might also add that we began, annually–actually, sometimes semiannually–with the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as with the cocoa industry–and I must say I am very encouraged by both of these countries.

I might especially point out Ghana. Ghana has done remarkably well. They are moving in the right direction in reducing this child labor and providing support for education. The Ivory Coast has now come–Cote d’Ivoire, as they call it, is now coming along really well. They have had some problems in the past. They have had some civil wars, disruptions in their economy. Now the new President and especially the First Lady of the Ivory Coast have really taken on this goal of reducing child labor in the Ivory Coast. I compliment both countries for their work with us and with the cocoa industry.

I compliment the cocoa industry as well. They are working as a true partner to try to meet that goal of reducing child labor by 70 percent by the year 2020.

I thank Tulane University for their investigations–for their monitoring, I should say, more than investigations–their monitoring of this process and getting us the true picture of what is happening.

I think all of this demonstrates that when we work together in a bipartisan way, we can confront some of the worst human rights abuses that exist. On the issue of forced and abusive child labor, we are resolved to act without regard to party affiliation and with high regard for the interests of children trapped in abusive labor.

As we are all aware, I am retiring from the Senate next year, but I assure my colleagues that I am not retiring from this fight. I will find some way to continue to be involved, to help make sure we reach those goals of reducing child labor by 70 percent by 2020 in both of those countries, and to use that also as a springboard for further kinds of cooperative efforts with governments around the world to get kids out of this terrible scourge of child labor.

Again, we have to ensure that ILAB has the resources to continue effective U.S. efforts. I look forward to working with my colleagues later this year to finally authorize ILAB so that it has the tools it needs to get children out of these abusive circumstances and into schools where they can gain the knowledge and skills they need not only to build a decent life for themselves but to break the cycle of poverty in the countries in which they live. It has been a vicious cycle of poverty and using and exploiting these kids. They don’t learn, they don’t go to school, they become impoverished, and the cycle just continues and continues. We have to break that.

In countries where they break that cycle, we have seen they then enter a virtuous cycle where the kids go to school. They learn. They become educated. They are then able to perform jobs with higher skills. They then bring in people to do some of these jobs that are paid a decent wage. They are adults. And we find that the whole country progresses because it is a virtuous cycle, not a vicious cycle.

Again, on this day, June 12, which is, as I said, called World Day Against Child Labor, it is good for us to pause and think about our own policies in this country and what we are doing to help the rest of the world, not in a punitive way of hitting someone over the head but by working together to solve what people thought was an intractable problem of kids not going to school, being forced into terrible labor conditions. It is time for us to think about how we work with other countries to help solve this problem.

If we read the history of the United States, we know we had terrible child labor problems in this country back in the 19th century. In the 1800s we can see all kinds of pictures of kids working in our mills, working on road crews. Again, when we finally stopped it–and it is amazing that the arguments we heard then against stopping child labor are some of the same arguments we hear now about stopping it in other countries.

We entered a virtuous cycle of educating our youth, getting them into schools. That led to higher incomes, led to a better gross national product, enabled us to become the most powerful, well-educated country in the history of the world. There are so many countries that would like to do that. They need our help. They need our support. Through our Department of Labor and the International Labor Affairs Bureau we can give them that kind of help and that kind of support so other countries can finally put an end to this scourge of child labor.