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Child labour, slavery and children’s participation

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, stated in a press release yesterday (February 01, 2010) that “the Government of Ecuador has demonstrated a genuine commitment to the elimination of child labour, including its worst forms, domestic servitude, forced labour and debt bondage.”

However, at a press conference in Quito at the end of her assessment visit to the country, the UN expert stressed that “despite the progress made, the extent of child labour remains alarming and domestic servitude and debt bondage are challenges still to be overcome.”

“Child labour in all its forms is an obstacle to the development of Ecuador where a high percentage of the population are children,” stressed the human rights expert. However, she congratulated the new administration “on the strong political will shown and comprehensive, holistic approach adopted to address the worst forms of child labour and other contemporary forms of slavery.”

“I am very encouraged by a number of exemplary initiatives instigated by the Government of Ecuador, UN agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders to eradicate the worst forms of child labour and to address the situation of child-workers,” said Ms. Shahinian, “but deeply regret that those programmes have yet to achieve universal coverage and be accessible to all.”

The UN independent expert on slavery also assessed during her mission instances of labour exploitation, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as discrimination, fundamental atrocities belittling human rights. These situations, which exacerbate labour and other forms of exploitation, which amount to contemporary forms of slavery, are encountered particularly by the large refugee and asylum-seeking community of Colombian nationals as well as sectors of the Ecuadorian population, including afro-ecuadorians, montubios and indigenous peoples.

“I am very concerned about the dire conditions of refugees and asylum-seekers and wish to stress that the Government is responsible for their protection and the restoration of their rights,” said Ms. Shahinian. “Urgent measures are required to protect and restore the rights of these people and to create an environment conducive to the elimination of labour exploitation and slavery in these areas.”

On the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers, the expert noted : “During my visit to provinces outside Pichincha, I observed that international standards for the protection of these groups are not sufficiently implemented, despite the Government’s liberal immigration policy.” “It is only by investing adequately in all children, regardless of ethnic or national origin, immigration or other status, that Ecuador will ensure sustainable development and prosperity for the decades ahead,” stressed Ms. Shahinian. “I strongly encourage the Government to mainstream gender, intercultural and plurinational perspectives into all programmes, plans and policies so that they achieve social inclusion and, therefore, coverage for all children and their families.”

Children in Ecuador

Children represent a very large percentage of the 13.2 million Ecuadorians. In 2006, 285,000 children were born in Ecuador. Many of these children will pay the consequences of endemic poverty in the years to come : 7000 babies will die before the age of five and 9% of the survivors will be considered underweight. (UNICEF 2008) 18% of these children were born in a family that survives on less than 1$ US per day while 26%, mainly indigenous children, will grow up malnourished. Many will suffer discrimination, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian children being more “likely to grow up in poverty and face difficulties in access to education” (UNICEF 2008).

But some of the statistics pertaining to the situation of Ecuadorian children are also encouraging. In 2006, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa made an effort to ensure greater accessibility for the population to education and health care. For instance, according to a February 2008 Human Rights Council’s Report, “Ecuador increased the national budget by 38 per cent to invest in social areas, in particular to provide universal, free and quality public health services and free and quality basic education.” (CRIN July 2008). The Ecuadorian government is also taking active measures to ensure a better quality of life for all children : “The Constitution of Montecristi (voted in September 2008) is the first to recognize children’s rights throughout the text, including on issues of political participation, enforcement mechanisms and education rights.” (CRIN Oct. 2008) Amongst some of the new measures promised by the 2008 constitution is “the right to vote at 16 (article 62), the progressive eradication of child labour, free education up to secondary level and mechanisms for children’s participation in decision-making in State bodies.” (CRIN Oct. 2008)

Another major problem that the Ecuadorian state has to face is the fact that many children have to work in order to contribute to the family’s economy. Ecuadorian legislation states that fifteen years old is the legal age for a teenager to start working for a maximum of six hours a day (Congreso 2003 Art. 82), but this is far from the reality of the labour market. A negative Human Right’s Watch report in 2002 denounced the fact that : “in Ecuador, children as young as eight labored for long hours on banana plantations in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.” (Human Right’s Watch 2002). This bad international reputation has forced the Ecuadorian government to address the problem starting from 2004 (UNICEF 2005). Progress to overcome child labour has in fact been made all across Latin America and the Caribbean, with rates falling by two-thirds in the past four years, which easily surpassed efforts made in Asia and Africa (ILO 2006, xi). In 2006, 81% of Ecuadorian children spent most of their time attending school, while 11% were sharing their time between school and economic activity and 4% were not doing any kind of activity. However, 3% of children were still working full-time including in some hazardous sectors such as mining (ILO 2008, 14).

Human trafficking is a reality for many Ecuadorian children, in particular for some youth of the Coast who are forced to engage in sexual activity in the urban areas. Forced labor also exists in the domestic service, mining, hospitality and commercial sectors. International trafficking of children is also a challenge to fight, with victims being taken into neighboring countries such as Colombia and Peru, as well as in Spain and Italy.

Ecuador is blamed by the 2008 Child Soldiers Global Report for showing little support to former Colombian child soldiers : “It is believed that there could be dozens of Colombian former child combatants in Ecuador and hundreds more who had crossed the border when faced with the threat of recruitment.” (Coalition to Stop 2008).

Child labour in the banana and flower sectors

In Ecuador, child labor is prevalent in the banana and flower sectors, although it has at times been difficult for companies in these sectors to acknowledge this.

The Social Forum for the Banana Production Sector, (Forum), set up in 2003, was the banana industry’s response to a 2002 report by the human rights advocacy Group Human Rights Watch, about child labor and obstacles to trade union membership in Ecuador’s banana plantations. The report resulted in international pressure for banana certification, particularly for the American and European markets, to guarantee that bananas are produced without child labor and labor rights are respected.
Central to the strategy of the efforts against child labor in the cut flower industry is the transition of children above the minimum age for employment from hazardous work, such as the application of pesticides, to non-hazardous aspects of flower production. Once they are engaged in non-hazardous work, a key challenge for the Forum has been to ensure that children do not work in excess of the limits on Lumber of hours worked prescribed by the Ecuadorian Labor Code. International pressure is an important factor in spurring action on child Labor.

In conclusion, the present government appears to be committed to work on the advancement of children and to ensure the respect of their human rights.

Let us hope that President Rafael Correa will be faithful to his promises to reduce poverty and invest more money in social welfare programs.
International organizations as well as NGO’s have praised the efforts of Ecuador in recent years especially improvement in education and health and also in children’s partecipation.

Children’s participation

There is a Working Children’s Movements in Ecuador, such as “Centro del Muchacho Trabajador” CMT and Salesian Project with advocacy of Salesian University UPS and the Latin American Network of Masters Courses on Child Rights (Red Latinoamericana de Maestrias en Derechos de la Infancia), with the European Network of Masters Courses on Child Rights (ENMCR) and others european NGOs.

The Salesian Children’s Project « Children of the Street » is a foundation with projects throughout Ecuador, dedicated to reintegrating children who live and work on the streets back into society through educational programming and social services. This foundation works with children and teenagers who are working and/or living on the streets. Their goal is to provide education about alternatives and necessary social services to these vulnerable, often abused children who have experienced too much at their young ages. The Salesian Children’s project runs several different centers in Quito, as well as projects in Ambato, Santo Domingo, and Esmeraldas.

In Ecuador, low-income working children living in very difficult circumstances have organized themselves to create better conditions and better environments for themselves. Some tens of thousands have become involved over the last 30 years.

I agree with the Working Children’s Movements that participation means children having the same rights as adults to influence political, economic, social and cultural life in their communities and societies in a sustainable way. They should also have the opportunity to influence programmes and negotiations sponsored by national and international agencies.

We are convinced that children should be able to decide for themselves what areas of action and problematic issues are relevant to them. Children should be recognised as competent subjects and protagonists when it comes to their own situation, their needs, their interests and their rights, independently of their age, gender, culture or social background. This is to be applied to both individual children and their associations.

It is the responsibility of societies and international organisations to create the necessary conditions and support children in their struggle and claims.
Through the Working Children’s Movements (in Asia, in Africa and LatinAmerica) and other child-led organisations, there have been many outstanding examples of participation and citizenship.

In the past three decades, the existence of these organised Working Children and Adolescents’ Movements has represented a change from the decalogue of good intentions to a concrete historical process. Their protagonism derives from their objective participation in economic processes, as well as a process of identity construction, denunciation and protest. The working child finds in “his” or “her” Movement a social, cultural and political space in which his/her working status becomes an instrument in a struggle for liberation. In this context, his/her personal story is reinterpreted as that of an empowered social actor.

As with all historical processes that aim for radical and genuine transformation, the process of achieving child and adolescent participation will be long and complex. In this process, successful rapid advances as well as delays are to be expected. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which represents a notorious advancement on the issue of participation, in some sentence, has been abstract to provide tangible legal instruments to make the rights it declares operative.

The issue of child participation continues in general to be undervalued, especially in certain institutions and organizational structures whose “forma mentis” is adult-centred. Agencies such as the ILO, or the trade union confederations, are not exempt of this, despite recent positive signs of openness to change. We hope that this is the beginning of a critical transformation that can help us give the issue of child and adolescent participation the importance that it deserves, but has not always been obtained.

This demonstrates that this issue requires a wider cultural struggle in order to dipell widespread adult-centred beliefs. We must be conscious of the fact that child participation is one of the principal keys to our modern understanding of citizenship : the same citizenship that aims to include populations that as yet have been excluded.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.