New roles for trade unions the trade union movement

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NEW ROLES FOR TRADE UNIONS The trade union movement has perhaps the longest continuous historical commitment against child labour. However, that commitment has been primarily to excluding children from the labour market. For that reason trade unions have been uneasy with strategies that protect children in their work, which they see as perhaps incompatible with a long-term goal of eliminating the economic participation of children altogether. It is hardly surprising that they have been 22 Promoting the Best Interests of Working Children
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cool to the self-representation of working children through their own organizations, which they tend to fear as competing "unions" of workers who should not be workers at all. They have heen openly hostile to the view of some working children's organizations that children should legally be allowed to engage in safe and non-exploitative work if they need or wish to. Although the union position is understandable and has a long and honorable history, it needs to take account of the economic and social realities of today's world. It may also he incompatible with a child-centred approach to child work and the best interests of working children. Trade unions should seriously consider adopting a policy that recognizes working children to be an inescapable reality even if an undesirable one and extends protective services to them. They could make a major contribution by including working children (perhaps in associate status if not as full members) and helping represent the children's interests to employers and other groups. Trade unions also have the potential to monitor and detect abuses and to campaign for improvements in health, safety and employment practices more generally. Through public education, they can raise public awareness of the hazards to children of specific work situations and specific activities and occupations, and can provide information on alternative employment opportunities. They could thus play a vital role in ensuring that children benefit from, rather than are harmed by, the work they do. They also could offer other services, such as literacy classes, or training in children's and workers' rights, to child workers and their families. Children could benefit greatly from being brought into participation as workers in regular trade union organizations, and as they mature inside the movement they might also become a valuable source of new leadership for the trade unions that treated them well as children. 25 A NEW CONVENTION AND A NEW OPPORTUNITY In mid-1998 the International Labour Organization held the first discussion leading toward a new ILO convention that would mobilize nations and the international community to eliminate the very worst forms of child labour, especially those that are tantamount to slavely and that face children with grave harm. I lopefully this convention will he adopted in mid-1999 and ratified by most countries shortly thereafter. At that point, the real work its implementation will begin. It is here that the child-centred approach sketched out above can be especially valuable, for it is more likely than are
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