Photo via Radio Maria

Argentina is currently hosting the fourth Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour, organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Between November 14-16, government representatives, as well as labor and business leaders from 190 countries have been discussing the best ways to deal with such a complex issue and to work towards eradicating it.

Needless to say, children living under modern slavery conditions very much fit in the ILO’s description of child labor: any economic activity or survival strategy, paid or not, carried out by children under 16 years of age. The definition refers to any mental, physical, social, or morally dangerous and harmful activity for children that can interfere with schooling or force them to leave school.

Before the conference, Argentina’s Labor Ministry, along with the ILO, Unicef and other  NGOs, published a survey in which it estimated there are about 715,484 children ages 5-15 currently working in the country.

Australian businessman and philanthropist Andrew Forrest, CEO of the Walk Free foundation, which strives to contribute to eradicating modern slavery, is attending the conference in Buenos Aires and is to deliver a speech before President Mauricio Macri, who will close the conference.

Forrest talked to us so we could hear his take on the subjects that have been discussed on the first two days of the conference, his analysis on the efficiency with which Argentina is tackling the matter, and the best ways we can contribute to eradicate it.

Forrest said there is “very genuine political and business leadership to overcome child labor.”

“Within that, there’s a very concerned group of people who are joining the rest of the world in understanding that modern slavery is the biggest problem which the world faces in terms of human rights issues. There are about 40.3 million people suffering from modern slavery and have no rights whatsoever. No control over their own body, the work that they do or the conditions they are living in. It’s great that Argentina is hosting this, and secondly, that it has been a very effective conference helping this subject garner the attention that it musts,” he said.

Forrest. Image/Mick Tsikas
Forrest. Image/Mick Tsikas

On Tuesday, Guy Rider, Director General of the ILO, said that the reduction of child labor has decelerated significantly in the past four years. “The rhythm has stagnated. The imperious challenge of this conference is to do more and faster,” he said.

When consulted about the possible reasons for this phenomenon, Forrest said he thinks it has to do with the fact that “the world is communicating better.” “We are understanding the extent of the problem better, and I think there is an appreciation that education is absolutely key. Where it falls down is when someone goes from being a child laborer to a child slave. And that is the key which intrigues me the most. A child laborer is robbed from his or her education. But slavery robs people from their education and future.”

So, how can the pace be increased again?

“It has to be an appreciation throughout Argentina and the world that child labor is absolutely wrong. parents or community members  who prevent or discourage a child from going to school to profit from that know they are committing a very serious crime, because they are robbing a person of their ability to make their own independent income. When it gets more serious is when communities allow child labor to switch to child slavery,” he explained.

Moreover, he indicated that people can contribute by reporting any organization that profits from slavery and forced labor to the authorities. Then it’s up to the Argentine government to prosecute those who are involved in slavery and take those who have been enslaved and give them a decent education. “Or, at least, the right to a proper living without being forced,” he added.

Forrest went on to indicate that his speech will mainly focus on “linking child labor to modern slavery, and in particular its getting the work by [Pope] Francis and the other religious leaders out.” By that he was referencing to what took place in 2014, when the world’s main religious leaders came together to sign a declaration against modern slavery.

Forrest intends to replicate that global agreement at a national level. “That is why I am in Argentina. [Today] at 10 o clock, at the child labour conference, the great faith leaders of Argentina will gather, and sign the exact same declaration as Pope Francis, to make sure that the people of Argentina understand that modern slavery exists in Argentina and that it can be defeated and that its their responsibility,” he said.

In 2013, the Walk Free foundation launched the Global Slavery Index, ranking 162 countries “based on a combined measure of three factors: estimated prevalence of modern slavery by population, a measure of child marriage, and a measure of human trafficking in and out of a country. In 2014, Argentina was ranked 20th in the World. However, it fell to the 32nd position in 2016.

Photo via Presidencia de la Nacion
Photo via Presidencia de la Nacion

Despite the drop, Forrest highly praised the country’s actions towards eradicating modern slavery: “Argentina’s government is juggling a great deal of challenges as it goes about modernizing its economy and making it efficient so its economy can deliver a standard of living to Argentinians, in the process it also feeds into a national action plan to eradicate modern slavery in Argentina,” he explained.

Forrest went on to say that ” we’ve found significant advancements in eliminating modern slavery and child labor in Argentina. I very much congratulate the Argentine government for making this a mission of focus because when you support the economy you must make sure you do not leave the least behind, and there’s no one less represented in Argentina than the modern slave,” he added.

2016’s Global Slavery Index estimated that 175,500 people are living in modern slavery in the country. The number represents 0.404 percent of the population. The index gave the country a BB grade, and noted that it is one of the highest in the region, along with Chile, the United States, Uruguay and Canada. Moreover, its regional report congratulated the government for having one of the highest response rates, and highlighted the national action plant that it implemented to combat trafficking and gender-based violence.

During his visit, Forrest also met with political leaders to continue working towards these shared goals. “The Global Freedom network has the active support of the government of Argentina. We’ve been welcomed into your country. I know the responsible governors. They accept that they have modern slavery, and they want to eliminate it. And the Argentine Government is being highly responsible in that attitude,” he argued.

“In Argentina, like in Australia, we’ve accepted that slavery does exist, and therefore we’ll stamp it out,” he concluded.