- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

Washington Times special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva recently interviewed Guy Thijs, director of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC). The technical cooperation program, established in 1992 by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and active in 86 countries, has brought the child labor problem to the attention of the world.

Question: After years of effort, IPEC seems to be delivering results to help child laborers worldwide. To what do you attribute this?

Answer: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s IPEC that has produced those results; it’s the work of the countries where we operate. But we do feel that we have played a role in really raising awareness about child labor. The fact is that the ILO convention on child labor is now being ratified by the majority of the (ILO member) states. In fact, Convention 182 has been ratified in nine out of 10 member states — 160 of the 178 members.

But what has really made a difference is that awareness-raising that we have generated is resulting in programs that really get children out of work and into school. And the governments are putting resources into those themselves. So we have been there as a catalyst and facilitator, and now see that governments take on this program and really put in resources themselves.

Q: What are some of the things IPEC does on the ground?

A: We have a range of interventions, and you could call [it] a menu because we really tailor-make the program to the problems of the country. One is, obviously, data collection. We have developed a methodology for credible data collection on child labor.

So we can help countries with that, because the knowledge base is the first step that you need to work on if you want to deal with the problem. The second is assistance in reforming legislation. Countries need to look at their legislation to bring it in line with the conventions.

The third thing is enforcement. If you have legislation, you have to work on your enforcement. We do train labor inspectors; we have a capacity-building program for labor inspectors. We also work on developing alternative monitoring systems, because labor inspectors cannot always go to the informal sector. So we help countries set up community-based monitoring systems, involving local communities as watchdogs in the process.

We have programs, then, that look at policies. How can you make your education policy more relevant — I would say more attractive — to child workers? Education in many cases is not acceptable to child laborers because it does not take into account their specific needs. So we work with countries in that field as well.

And last, what is very important is that we also help countries in concrete action programs that can serve as models. We don’t just preach and say, “This is the way you should do it.” We also provide assistance in implementing programs by actually working with the government, and other partners, by getting children out of work and into school; helping parents to improve their income levels. These models then can serve as examples.

Q: Does this include financial rewards if the parents send the children to school?

A: We would usually not provide the cash incentives ourselves. We would work with the government in looking at how they can actually develop the systems and how best they can do it themselves. We don’t have the resources to provide that kind of support.

Q: Have IPEC programs worked better in some regions than others, and are you gearing up to put more resources in sub-Saharan Africa?

A: Again, we have worked in all regions from the start, but the Americas have a more conducive environment to achieve success in dealing with child labor. There, our assistance has shown results earlier.

In Africa, we started the same time, but Africa is facing challenges which are not comparable. We do feel we need to reinforce our programs there, and this is something we will be doing in the years to come.

Q: How many countries are contributing resources to IPEC?

A: We have currently 30 donors, and most of them are governments. But we also have worker organizations and employers’ organizations that contribute to IPEC as well. So we have quite a diversified group of donors.

Q: What is the contribution from the United States?

A: The contribution from the U.S. is from two sources — the Department of Labor and the Department of State, and at this stage is quite substantial, in the range of $30 million to $40 million per year.

Q: The use of child labor in sweatshops in industries such as textiles, apparel and footwear triggered consumer reaction in many Western markets. Has this action helped reduce child labor, based on data coming in from the field?

A: We have definitely seen that these industries understand that it’s very important for them to deal with this problem. Many have taken initiatives and called on us for support. For example, in Bangladesh, we have helped the garment industry really put in place a system to monitor child labor in the factory and to ensure that children are being referred to institutions.

But we have also seen garment industries in countries that have taken initiatives on their own, like Cambodia.

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