Imagine a country the size of the United States, in which the entire population - 250 million - are child labourers. Then imagine, within it, the worst forms. An underclass of children - some 60 to 80 million at least - roughly the population of California, Texas and New York combined, working in conditions which cripple their bodies, minds and souls, stunt their growth and shorten their lives.
No one would tolerate such an abomination if it were visibly concentrated in one place. Yet there it is, hidden, dispersed and tolerated throughout the world. An abhorrent legacy of the twentieth century, and a huge challenge for the twenty first.
Child labour, in many ways, is an abuse of power. It is adults exploiting the young, weak, vulnerable, and insecure for personal profit.
Child labour is lack of opportunity for parents, and it is the biggest failure of development efforts. Together with the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, it is the dark side of the global economy.
Is eradicating child labour from the face of the earth an impossible dream? I believe it is not. It should not be. It cannot be. That is why we are here today.
All of us are committed to this course. We want to act, participate, contribute, and be part of a growing global movement. A movement that will shake to its foundations the indifference of so many people.
We all want to see parents at work and children in school. To make it happen we must begin by understanding local realities, reaching concrete communities, children with names, parents with faces, families in need. That is why the children with us here today are the most important participants of all. They have a lot to tell us, and we have much to learn from them.
Worldwide, the work has already begun. Today we will hear about the ongoing struggle against child labour on a local level.
This is a very important day for listening and learning. We will hear inspirational stories - about children now at school instead of making bricks in Peru. About children and their families freed from the scourge of hazardous domestic labour in Tanzania. About children rescued from trafficking and prostitution in Thailand - prostitution sustained, don't forget, by the affluent sex tourists of the north.
Everyone here today has a special responsibility. Whether we work for government agencies or in legislative offices; whether we work for labour unions or employers associations; whether we work for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or international organizations; whether we work for religious institutions or in private business. We all have our responsibilities.
Yet no matter how deeply we have been involved with child labour, all of us will learn from the speakers who have made long journeys to be here today. They are in the front line of the struggle. They represent a treasure chest of knowledge about how best to move children out of work in highly complex situations - socially, economically, and culturally.
As Director-General of the ILO, I am proud that our International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is at the centre of this cause, working closely with governments, employers and labour unions, NGOs and committed international organizations, especially UNICEF. So I am particularly glad that Carol Bellamy will be joining us.
During the last eight years, some 90 countries have rallied behind IPEC to form an alliance which has turned the issue into a global cause. From just one donor country (Germany) and six participating states in 1992, IPEC now has more than 20 donors and more than 65 participating countries. The United States has shown outstanding leadership in IPEC and is now its largest single funder.
IPEC and other field projects are vital. But they are not enough. Alone they will not do away with child labour. They show what can be achieved with resolve and dedication. They show that children can be saved from appalling work situations, rescued, cared for, and rehabilitated.
But, this must go hand in hand with world-wide advocacy against child labour, focusing on its worst forms. Advocacy that turns yesterday's unchangeable and unchallenged reality into today's unacceptable abuse. A campaign that mobilizes by expanding and deepening commitment. A campaign that creates a climate of moral outrage making it uncomfortable, unprofitable and ultimately impossible for the exploiters of children to continue in their ways.
At the same time opportunities for sustainable development are needed so that children and their families have real alternatives to the vicious circle of poverty and exclusion. Often, a child's pay is the only family income. Experience has shown that education for all is crucial. Schools for children, and decent work for their parents, backed by international cooperation, is the formula. If we want to, we can put an end to child labour in the lifetime of today's children. The fact is that we know what policies are needed: now we need to bring the political will to get the job done.
And we are moving forward.
One year ago, delegates from the ILO's member States - governments, employers, and workers - adopted unanimously the new Convention on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour. That means forced child labour, sexual exploitation of children, their use in illicit activities, and work which is hazardous to the health, welfare and development.
Ratifying governments commit themselves to immediate action to protect children from these horrors and to provide them with education and rehabilitation.
Today, 15 countries, including the United States, have already ratified the Convention. Many more report that they will be doing so very soon. Our ILO campaign for universal ratification is rolling forward. It has become the most rapidly ratified Convention in ILO history.
It was my privilege to be with Secretary Herman and Senator Harkin in Seattle last year, when President Clinton signed the instrument of ratification, a reaffirmation of US commitment and leadership, by Government and Congress.
I want to pay particular tribute to Senator Harkin's contribution. He made this happen, he was inspirational from start to finish. There was strong support from trade unions and employers, as well as from Government in the ratification process, and for this let me thank President Sweeney, and Ambassador Niles. Gene Sperling is here too, and he has been a tower of strength in advancing our joint work against child labour.
But beyond ratification, we need action.
This Convention provides new opportunities. It is the springboard for a new phase in our global campaign. It expresses the will to focus immediately on the worst forms of child labour. Increasingly, societies are no longer willing to countenance the intolerable. They are ready to assume responsibility for the destiny of their children. National policy and international cooperation can be brought together in comprehensive time-bound programmes for the eradication of the worst forms of child labour. This is the key next step. Countries that move in that direction should be recognized and supported. I trust that our conference will put us firmly on that road.
We have ministers here from El Salvador, from Nepal, and from Tanzania. Their countries are to the fore, working with the ILO to do just that. I salute their commitment, and pledge the ILO's commitment to move forward along this chosen path.
This generation can set a new standard for humanity by banishing the enslavement and exploitation of children to the scrapheap of history.
It is a difficult task - yes of course it is. It is complex - yes. But no, it is not impossible.
Let's join forces, and just do it!