Summary

  • Deputy Undersecretary of Labor for International Affairs, Thea Lee discussed her attendance at the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor May 15-20 in Durban, South Africa as well as what the U.S. is doing to eliminate child labor.  

Download or listen to the audio here .

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by the Deputy Under Secretary of Labor for International Relations1 [Affairs] Thea Lee.  She is speaking to us from the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor in Durban, South Africa.  

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Under Secretary Lee, then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have allotted.

If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.

As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Under Secretary Thea Lee for her opening remarks.  Over to you.  

Ms. Lee:  Thank you so much, Marissa, for being here and for organizing this event.  Thanks to everybody who is joining us online.  We are thrilled to be in Durban, South Africa, this week for the 5th Global Conference to eliminate child labor.  This is a very exciting conference, and it is exciting to see South Africa taking the lead.  This is the first time that this global conference has happened in the African region, and we are very thrilled with the kind of hospitality that South Africa has extended to all the delegates.  We have thousands of delegates joining from governments, from business, from labor, from civil society, from international organizations both here in person and online.  So people are here to share knowledge, to coordinate their actions, and to reinforce our collective will at this very important and urgent moment.  

And I say it’s urgent because we are faced with a crisis, really, in child labor.  The new figures on global child labor came out recently last year from the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, and the results were disturbing.  We saw that for the first time in two decades, child labor globally is rising, not falling.  And so between 2016 and 2020, global – the number of children in child labor globally increased from 152 million to 160 million.  And I’ll tell you something, Marissa, which is that entire 8 million increase in child labor was in sub-Saharan Africa.  And so that is a wakeup call.  This is a moment of crisis, a moment of urgency where we really need everybody – we need governments, we need the media, we need unions and business and civil society – to put our heads together and to be able to address this question.  And the other thing that makes it more urgent, too, is that those figures are through the beginning of 2020, and we know that COVID has actually made this problem much worse, that it has thrown families into poverty and it has disrupted economies and supply chains, and that has put many more children – especially the most vulnerable populations like migrant workers – at even heightened risk.

So these are the emergencies that we face here, and we know from our work at the U.S. Department of Labor that children workers and adult workers in forced labor are often in the shadows.  Many are out of reach of regulations.  They work in homes, in mines, or in fields that labor inspectors rarely visit and at the bottom end of global supply chains, far out of sight of the consumers who ultimately purchase their products.  

So we need better data to be able to understand the problems and to be able to solve those problems, and that’s what we’re very proud of at the U.S. Labor Department and my little bureau, the International Labor Affairs Bureau, ILAB, that the reporting that we do on child labor and forced labor makes these unseen people visible; it exposes both the governments and the companies that are responsible for labor rights abuses.  We provide the concrete policy recommendations for governments to enhance both social protection and create the conditions for decent work, which are key factors in combating both child labor and forced labor.

We know, for example, that we are not going to get children out of labor if their parents don’t have good jobs, if they don’t have the right to a union, if they don’t have decent pay, if they don’t have a safe and healthy workplace.  So we need to work on these problems together.  We need to put all our resources together.  And there is not a single silver bullet.  There is no one thing.  If it were easy, it would be done already.  

And the U.S. Government, we are using a mix of approaches.  We use our research and reporting, but we also use trade enforcement and monitoring.  We use technical assistance projects, and we have some very exciting projects going on in the African region, and we use multilateral engagement and labor diplomacy to address these issues.  And we know that when we look at global supply chains, being able to track what happens and where goods go through the global supply chain is a critical tool in the fight to end labor exploitation.  And this year, our work is – Congress, the U.S. Congress, has asked us to go – to delve deeper.  We have always put together lists every two years of goods that are made with child labor and forced labor around the world, but Congress wants us to look deeper to look at goods that are also made with inputs made with forced and child labor.  And so that is obviously a very expanded universe of products, but it is also essential to holding both companies and governments accountable.  And so we are working to use our trade agreements and new technologies to be able to track inputs made with child labor or forced labor.  And, for example, we’re looking at critical supply chains – like cocoa from West Africa; cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; polysilicon from China, which is a key input into solar panels; and many others.  

And one project I wanted to highlight:  In West Africa, we have funded some of the sector-specific child labor surveys, which gives us that information, the data that we need to be able to solve the problem, to document the scope and nature of child labor in specific sectors.  And we are funding projects to demonstrate to the cocoa industry actors that traceability is, in fact, possible.  And at the moment we have two projects – MATE MASIE and CACAO projects – that are piloting farm-to-cooperative traceability systems in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, respectively.  

So we – the last thing I wanted to mention is a great new initiative that the Biden-Harris administration has launched: the M-POWER Initiative.  It’s called the Multilateral Partnership on Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights.  This is the U.S. Government’s largest commitment ever to securing free, independent, and democratic trade unions on a global scale, and we are coordinating with other governments to make sure that this effort can have the resources and the coordination it needs, and then also with philanthropic organizations.  So we have – the U.S. Government has committed $124 million over the next two years to strengthen worker voice and worker power around the world.  And the philanthropic administration has – philanthropic organizations have thrown in another $100 million.  So this is a very significant effort.  We’re very proud of it.  We’re very excited about it.  We’re – one of the reasons that we’re here is to be able to talk to other governments and other international organizations about M-POWER because we want to bring more folks on board.  

So let me pause there, and look forward to your questions, Marissa, and the questions of those of you who are joining this call today.  

Moderator:  Thank you, Deputy Secretary – Deputy Under Secretary Lee.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: Deputy Under Secretary Lee’s participation in the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor and U.S. Government initiatives to eradicate child labor.  

Okay.  Our first question will actually go to a question that was sent in to us from Nigeria, from The Nation, from Mr. Olukorede Yishau.  “From the research you have carried out on Nigeria, how would you describe the country’s child labor challenge?”

Ms. Lee:  Thank you, Marissa, for that question.  And we are pleased that the Nigerian Government has validated both a national policy of child labor and a national action plan on the elimination of child labor, and the goal is to have a standardized policy and child labor action plan throughout the country.  And I think this is an important first step, but unfortunately there is also a lot of work that still needs to be done.  

In terms of international standards, I’m afraid Nigeria does not meet many of the international standards that we report on – the minimum age for work, prohibition of child trafficking, prohibition of commercial sexual exploitation, or prohibition of using children in illicit activities.  So these are very important legal areas where more work needs to be done.  

Some of the sectors where we have seen child labor in Nigeria include mining, domestic work, commercial sexual exploitation, and we see that children have been subjected to forced labor in begging, street vending, and domestic work.  And in terms of education, which of course is one of the key elements that we say that children need to be in school and not in the workplace, but Nigeria has a high out-of-school rate: approximately 10.5 million children, nearly one in three children in Nigeria, are out of school, and that is one of the highest in the world.  

And with respect to law enforcement, which is of course the key element, we did not see enough emphasis, enough resources on labor and criminal law enforcement, including the existing protections that are on the books for children in the informal sector.  And one of the things that we talk to many countries about is the ability to conduct unannounced labor inspections.  The government has to be able to show up at a workplace without telling them ahead of time; that is a crucial element in a strong labor inspection system.  And making sure that labor inspectors have the ability to enact and collect penalties when they find violations.  

So those are – those are some of the – that’s the picture that we have in Nigeria.  So progress with respect to the national action plan, but much more needing to be done in terms of enforcement and legislation.   

Moderator:  Thank you so much.  You mentioned a dire situation in your opening remarks, specifically that COVID has been a huge impetus to the increase in percentages of child labor, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa.  Is what the United States is doing working to help with vaccinations, is that helping?  And what more can be done to remove that linkage between COVID and child labor? 

Ms. Lee:  Thank you for that question, Marissa.  Apparently, we’re not doing enough.  So I would just say that as a start, that more needs to be done.  I do think that the vaccination support has been helpful, and we hope that there will be more support going forward.  

With respect to COVID, hopefully we are at a place where we are beginning to emerge slowly from the pandemic and to be able to make the changes.  I mean, one of the key things for us, of course, is as business ramps back up again, we need to make sure that we have taken on board the lessons of COVID, which is to say that worker protections and a safe workplace and the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively are actually a key part of a safe return to work.  And I think we’ve seen that in the United States and we’ve seen it around the world that trying to shortcut, to jump over some of those things – to say, oh, we’re in a crisis, so we need to weaken worker protections or minimum wage or child labor enforcement – that is the wrong way to go.  Part of what we need to do is to understand that – well, I think what we saw in COVID is that the most vulnerable worker in society can bring all of us down.  If your people who are working in the meat-packing factory do not have protections, that will bring down that factory.  If people who are working in retail or in restaurants or in hospitality don’t have sick leave, they don’t have the ability to stay home when they have a cough, that will bring all of us down.  

So I am hoping that governments all over – all over the world, and including in Africa – are taking on board those kinds of lessons.  And so with respect to child labor, we are focused on the most vulnerable workers, and this is what we see especially – there are definitely migration pressures.  We see that here; we see it all over the world; we see it in the United States.  And – sorry – when families migrate out of economic desperation, often the children fall out of school or they don’t have access to online school because they don’t have the technology and so on.  And so governments need to be especially protective of those people who are in transit, who are vulnerable because of language barriers, ethnic/religious barriers, those kinds of things.  And so that’s where we’re trying to focus some of our technical assistance during this period – the sort of COVID and post-COVID period.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we will go live to Vicky Stark.  Vicky Stark is from Voice of America here in South Africa.  Ms. Stark, you may ask your question.  

Question:  Hi, Under Secretary.  Under Secretary, you mentioned lists that are produced every two years.  Are those lists publicly available?  And also, what has happened to the employers on those lists?  

Ms. Lee:  Thank you for that question, Vicky.  Yes, those lists are publicly available, and this fall we will put out our every-second-year list.  They are on the U.S. Labor Department’s website, so you can find them and you can look up – actually, we have also an app called Sweat & Toil that you can download from your app store, and that has all the information about the products and the child labor findings of thousands of pages of our research.  So you can find – you can put in a country, you can put in a product, you can put in a labor rights problem and be able to download that information.  

And in terms of the companies, we don’t actually – the U.S. Labor Department when we put together these lists, we do not name companies; we name like a product, like cobalt or mica or palm oil, and from a country.  And sometimes this is sort of a – this is a catalyst for further research throughout the U.S. Government because other entities – and we cooperate with our sister agencies in the U.S. Government, the Commerce Department that does put together an entities list; the U.S. Customs and Border Protection that also is charged with enforcing our prohibition on the import of goods made in whole or in part with forced labor, and the Commerce – the Customs and Border Protection can issue what’s called a withhold release order.  This is a very important and powerful tool when they have reason to believe that a company – and this would be at the level of an individual company – is using forced labor in its supply chain, and those goods can be stopped at the U.S. border.  

So these are extremely important tools.  We also work with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to enforce the labor chapters in our trade agreements and also our benefit program, the Generalized System of Preferences.  

So that is all – it is all public information.  You can look up under Customs and Border Protection the withhold release orders, the Commerce Department has the entities list, and we put together just the list of goods made with child and forced labor.  But thank you for the question, Vicky.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live again, this time to Milton Maluleque of – a freelancer for Deutsche Welle.  Mr. Maluleque, you may ask your question.  

Question:  Good afternoon and thanks for this opportunity.  Poor families are targeted, especially in rural areas from Mozambique, by relatives and strangers promising to take their kids to school in big cities like Maputo, even to neighbor countries like South Africa.  Arrived in those destinations, the children are submitted to domestic work and sexual exploitation.  How USA can assist to combat this violation of  children’s rights?  

Ms. Lee:  Thank you so much, Milton, for that question.  That is an extremely important question, and that is something where we would think that there can be work at both ends, both in the sending end where there is – we need to do a better job informing people about the problems with these unscrupulous recruiters.  We see that with respect to children, but we also see it with labor recruiters.  And I know that the International Labor Organization has a new effort called Fair Recruitment, where they are trying to target these terrible recruiters who lie to people – they make promises, “Oh, you’re going to have a great job, you’re going to do this, you’re going to go to school” – and often when the migrants end up in the places where they’re going, they find that their documents are taken away and they are subjected to trafficking and to forced labor and sometimes to child labor.  

So we want to start both at the sending country and to make sure that people are aware and that governments are aware to crack down on those kinds of terrible, unscrupulous, dishonest recruiters, and then also to have the enforcement at the other end.  So if children are being subjected to domestic work or to informal sector work, that is – we need to make sure that governments have the capacity to enforce their labor laws, to enforce their criminal code with respect to that.  And that is something we often have worked with governments in many countries.  We have a new project right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  We are working very closely in partnership with the Labor Department and the ministry of mines in the DRC to strengthen the labor inspectorate, and we certainly want to provide technical assistance to the labor inspectors, but also – so through the ILO, the International Labor Organization, we are supporting the DRC’s efforts to hire as many as 2,000 new labor inspectors and to make sure that those labor inspectors are able to do their job effectively, that they have the information, they have the tools that they need to be effective and to be able to get to the areas where problems are happening.  

But thank you very much for that question, Milton.  This is sort of an ongoing issue and it’s one where we need everybody’s cooperation, we need to also be able to take in the information that we get from unions or from civil society when they suspect that a problem is happening.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we have a question from Ali Laggoune of Elbilad TV in Algeria.  This question is about illegal immigration and the link to child labor.  Could you talk a little bit about that linkage, specially within Africa, when there are countries that are already going through a multitude of issues, problems, water crises, and to add the issue of child labor?  Talk to us a little bit about the nexus between illegal immigration and child labor.   

Ms. Lee:  Thank you so much for that question.  And this is something that we do have a big focus on because it is a vulnerability; it’s a moment of vulnerability.  And we – certainly we see that we have years-long armed conflicts, insurgencies, and coups that have destabilized certain areas, displacing millions of people, and children at that point are especially vulnerable to trafficking and to labor exploitation.  The majority of child trafficking happens within the Sahel, for example, and that region, but many children are trafficked into North Africa – often Algeria, Libya, and Morocco.  And when the children come, whether they’re with their parents or sometimes they might get separated from their parents, they can be exploited by tribal groups, by armed groups, by smugglers, and other criminal networks into forced begging, commercial sexual exploitation, and construction.  

So this is something where obviously there’s so many different levels at which the system is breaking down when children become vulnerable that way.  But being able to track the movement and being able to provide the kinds of social services and protections to migrant groups so that they are not so vulnerable, that they are able to exercise their rights, they are able to get help, let’s say, from the consulate – that would be – those are the kinds of steps that are very important in order to protect these very vulnerable children who can become victims, unfortunately, during a moment of vulnerability in transit.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Another question is about the condition of child labor and the fact that most or a majority of countries have signed off on saying that child labor is something that needs to be eradicated.  Why is the problem still prevalent in the world?  

Ms. Lee:  That is a good question, and it is something that is very much the subject of the conference that we are at this week in Durban – that many countries have ratified the ILO conventions against child labor, which is important.  We are very glad when countries take that step of ratifying the conventions, and it is also important that countries take that step of developing a national action plan.  But it’s not the end of the story.  

And I think I would say the simple answer – why does it happen?  It happens because somebody is making money off of it.  And therefore, we need to make sure that we are not just talking; it’s not just a question of blah, blah, blah or exhortation.  Because we need to change the economic conditions around which unscrupulous companies or even governments who don’t care can benefit from violating human rights and children’s rights.  And I know at this conference the labor minister from the Bahamas at a session that I was on yesterday said child labor is a form of child abuse.  We should treat it that way, that these people are criminals.  If you have a company that says, well, children are cheap, children are docile, they’re not likely to form a union, they’re not likely to go out on strike, then that is wrong.  It’s wrong.  

And in order to protect the good companies – and there are plenty of good companies that have high standards and that really want to be competing on a level playing field – we have to crack down on the bad players.  And governments, this is their job.  It is the job of governments to make sure that nobody is profiting from exploitation of children because this is a heinous crime.  And that’s the kind of commitment that we are seeing this week, and there is a frustration too, there is an impatience that I’m sensing from other people and I have it.  I have it myself.  I am impatient and frustrated.  I don’t want to see another 10 years of pledges and commitments and promises.  

We need to take concrete actions, and that is why the U.S. Government under the Biden-Harris administration have what we call the worker-centered trade policy that we – this administration, Secretary Walsh, Ambassador Katherine Tai, who is our U.S. Trade Representative, have made very clear that we want our trade policy to support and strengthen workers’ rights and human rights.  We want to – access to the U.S. market is in jeopardy for companies or governments that are violative of child labor, of forced labor, of violations of freedom of association, collective bargaining, and discrimination in employment.  These are international labor standards.  Countries have committed to uphold those through the International Labor Organization.  But we need to use every tool at our disposal, including market access, including criminal prosecution, to make sure that we are not allowing unscrupulous actors to profit and benefit from violating these important protections.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  So we just have a couple more minutes, and I’m going to ask you, Madam Deputy Under Secretary, if you have any final remarks.  

Ms. Lee:  Thank you so much, Marissa, and it’s been really a pleasure to be here and I appreciate all the questions that people have asked.  I guess my parting remark would be to all of you, to the journalists, just to tell you, to reiterate to you how important your role is, that you can’t fix what you don’t see.  And so we really rely on journalists, on the media, to be our partners in exposing and investigating and questioning what is happening, whether it is a violation in a field somewhere, in a mine somewhere, on the streets, but trying to help us bring to light some of the problems that are there and hold both the governments and the corporations accountable when there are violations.  

So I really want to thank you for the work that you all do, but also to urge you to make sure that these kinds of issues around child labor and forced labor and freedom of association, collective bargaining, are really at the center of your reporting so that we can work together to expose the violations and then fix them.  

So thank you again.  Thank you, Marissa, for having me today.  And thanks to all of you for joining.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  That concludes today’s briefing.  I would like to thank Deputy Under Secretary of Labor for International Relations Thea Lee for speaking to us today, and to all of our journalists for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov.  Thank you.  

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