June 16: Press Briefing by Gene Sperling, National Economic Advisor and Andrew Samet, Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs


Office of the Press Secretary
(Geneva, Switzerland)

For Immediate Release June 16, 1999


United Nations Building
Geneva, Switzerland

12:25 P.M. (L)

MR. SPERLING: Today's speech by the President not only is another step in his continuing role of trying to forge a new consensus on open markets and to talk about the needs to both strengthen and support open markets, resist protectionism and, yet, put a human face on the global economy and make sure that open markets in global economy is raising living standards and not leading to a race to the bottom.

His focus on child labor has been very strong, particularly over the last couple of years. Tomorrow, the convention will vote on the -- the ILO will vote on this convention. We expect it to pass overwhelmingly. And then it is the goal of the President to have us seek to get this ratified this year, as soon as possible. And we will take all steps necessary to do so.

The President also stressed that this is not enough, that child labor is a very difficult issue, it's a complex issue, that it needs real resolutions that ensure that people are not just being moved from one form of exploitive child labor to another.

The program that he was talking about, that's run out of the ILO, which is called IPEC, is the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor. This program was created in 1992 and they formed partnerships so that when they are closing a factory they are making sure that the children are trying to get into a positive situation -- school, particularly -- and that there is support at a local level for implementing it. And he had mentioned one of the successful stories, cases, which was Pakistan soccer balls. There are several others.

The United States now supplies 62.5 percent of the funding for IPEC. We are the major donor. This is as a result of the President's last budget. Previously, IPEC had about $19 million in funding. The United States spent $3 million. Then we increased ours by tenfold, to $30 million, and more than doubled IPEC's budget. So the United States comes here having put their money where our values are, in terms of supporting IPEC and encouraging other countries to do so.

In 1973, the ILO passed a convention, 138, that dealt with the overall larger issues of child labor. Since then, only 72 countries have ratified that. In the last few years a consensus was building that while there were disagreements on the fringes concerning convention 138, that should not prevent the world from coming together and stating a clear position against the most abusive forms of child labor, such as child prostitution, the use of children for paying debts, bonded labor, the use of children for trafficking and the use of children in extremely hazardous situations that not only keep them from going to school, but lead to permanent injuries.

What you've seen here is the world coming together, through the ILO, to show that they can get consensus on this. And we feel very strong that this now will have the kind of support that we can push this through the United States Senate. The United States has not been as strong over the last few decades in supporting ILO conventions. We hope that this convention will be different, and we're quite confident it will be.

I will stop. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to take some. We also have with us Andrew Samet, who is the lead negotiator and did an outstanding job, working through many difficult issues in leading to this convention.

Q Do you expect any opposition in the Senate?

MR. SPERLING: We have no reason to think so right now. Again, I think that this was designed to focus on the most abusive forms of child labor. And remember how this works now, this tripartite body, so there is a labor and a business representative and the U.S. government representative. So this comes through with the support of each faction of the U.S. that was represented here.

Q Gene, how big of a problem is child labor abuse in the United States? Could you give us a greater sense of that?

MR. SPERLING: Well, I think that most of the abuses that we've seen have been in the agriculture area. And the Secretary of Labor has, through a salad bowl initiative, sought to try to uncover that. I think there have certainly been incidences in the garment industry, as well.

The ILO report that is often cited is from 1996 worldwide, which has 250 million children between the ages of five and 14; about 135 million of those children come from Asia, with about 80 million from Africa. That is where the largest numbers or the most serious problems are. But, again, we think it's important that one be cleaning up their own backyard and we will -- we have at the same time tried to take efforts increasing enforcement; we have more money, two consecutive years, for enforcement in the Labor Department budget, particularly dealing with agriculture. I believe AP had a strong series of stories of some of the abuses that were taking place.

We just had the executive order ensuring that the United States Government is not engaged in procurement activities that involve child labor. And we've also tried to step our customs enforcement. But, again, that mostly deals with purchasing from overseas and ensuring that we're not allowing things in under the Customs Act of 1930, that would be made with illegal child labor.

Q What are our child labor laws? Can you help me out. What's our cut-off? What is the age limit?

MR. SPERLING: Well, this is regulated by state. But, Andrew, do you want to --

DEPUTY UNDERSECRETARY SAMET: For full-time employment the age is 16. There are circumstances under which children 15 to 14 are allowed to work part-time. But it's very tightly regulated as to total hours and conditions.

Q It doesn't go industry by industry? In other words, that would be agriculture, manufacturing, everything?

DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SAMET: There are slightly different standards in the agriculture sector than in the non-agriculture sector.

Q Lower or higher?

DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SAMET: Lower ages, some work can be done.

Q What's the enforcement mechanism in the ILO convention?

DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SAMET: Well, there'll be -- there's a system of reporting mechanisms within the ILO. So when a country ratifies, it's subject to a series of supervisory reports. In addition to that, under a Declaration on Fundamental Rights that was adopted last year, all countries, member countries of the ILO, are going to be held accountable on basic standards, a list of basic standards, which include freedom of association, the right to organize and collectively bargain, nondiscrimination, forced labor and also abusive child labor. So there's a stepped-up reporting mechanism system within the ILO that will explain countries' practices to the world.

Q But there are no sanctions?

DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY SAMET: There's no sanctions in the sense of economic sanctions, if that's what you're referring to.

Q For either of you, the executive order the President issued over the weekend refers to forced or indentured child labor. And the definition you just gave seemed to be broader, covering work in hazardous areas. Is there a reason for -- is there a distinction between that order and what would be covered by the ILO convention? And, if so, what's the reason for that distinction?

MR. SPERLING: I think the executive order would be broader, in fact. I mean, the executive order instructs the Labor Department, over the next 120 days, to work with Treasury, Customs and the State Department in identifying the products, by country, that have a history or precedent of being made with child labor. That then puts every agency on notice and they even have an affirmative duty to ensure that their contractors have taken affirmative steps to ensure that the products are not being made with child labor. And there, there is significant enforcement, going all the way from suspension to debarment from procurement.

Q But do you know why that phrase, "forced or indentured," is used in the Executive Order?

DEPUTY UNDERSECRETARY SAMET: I think that's the standard that tracks the 1930 Tariff Act, as well, so it's consistent with that standard.

Q So you think hazardous would be included in the category "forced or indentured"?

DEPUTY UNDERSECRETARY SAMET: I think in some circumstances it would be and in some circumstances it wouldn't be, based upon the circumstances if forced and indentured child labor related to it.

MR. SPERLING: I think the point of the executive order, though, is to put notice to the agencies of the federal government that we want to take every step to ensure we're not even in the gray areas.

Q Can you tell me if any country in the developing world is going to sign this convention tomorrow?

DEPUTY UNDERSECRETARY SAMET: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question.

MR. SPERLING: I think we expect that most developing countries will.

DEPUTY UNDERSECRETARY SAMET: I think it's important to understand that the process here is one that reflects consensus of all the regional groups. The negotiation included very strong participation by the Americas group, by the African group, by the Asia group, as well. And their investment and their participation, I think, yields a result in which they are committed as governments as well to try to ratify this convention.

Q Gene, I've got a G-8 question. The President had mentioned that the U.S. would provide resources for this larger trust fund. Is he going to ask Congress this year for more money for debt relief? And how will the burden be shared among the G-8 countries for this debt relief trust fund?

MR. SPERLING: Well, first of all, we obviously -- the President has referred to both in the Chicago speech, and the speech has been what the United States' proposal is that we have tabled -- which is, as you know, a plan that would more than triple the degree of debt reduction, allowing for faster cash flow relief and targeting those funds more tightly to the -- of the savings to the alleviation of poverty and child survival issues.

In doing that, there's both a bilateral and a multilateral component. And what the President is referring to is, to the degree that there is a multilateral component, it will require an expansion of the HIPC trust fund. And what the President is making clear is that we will actively seek funding so that the United States is doing its part in an expanded HIPC, or trust fund -- heavily indebted, poorest countries trust fund.

As to the exact apportionment or to the exact timing of what the funds are, I think that I couldn't give more details on that one because there's not been an agreement yet; and, secondly, that would also go -- costs will also go to the degree that countries comply and how quickly they come forward and meet the standards.

As you know, we've always, in our proposals, ensured that there was conditionality so that there was -- that the debt relief was being done in a context of reforms that would actually lead to the money being saved for uses -- for the proper types of savings the world wants to see, such as using those funds for education and alleviating poverty, and not for improper uses that could happen in some countries if there was no conditionality on economic reforms tied to the debt reduction.

MR. TOIV: Thanks, Gene.

Q Thank you.

Q Can you elaborate a bit if, in the Seattle ministerial meeting, you will be pushing for the trade and labor linkage, given that over 120 rich and poor countries oppose it in the World Trade Organization?

MR. SPERLING: We will be, obviously, talking more about what we hope to do at the WTO ministerial, but there is no question that our goal is to seek a greater linkage of both labor and environmental standards in the overall discussions.

As to what the exact deliverables will be, what we hope to accomplish there, that we'll be talking about in more detail in the run up to the Seattle ministerial in November.

MR. TOIV: All right, thanks, Gene. Gene's got to go, I'm sorry.

END 12:40 P.M. (L)

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