Home Opinion Special Reports Ms Thea Lee’s Insights on the Iqbal Masih Award and Global Initiatives

Ms Thea Lee’s Insights on the Iqbal Masih Award and Global Initiatives

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U S Department Of Labor
US Department of Labor (DOL)

Ms. Thea Lee, Deputy Undersecretary for International Labor Affairs at the US Department of Labor (DOL), recently shared with News Ghana the significance and selection criteria of the Iqbal Masih Award. This award is named after a Pakistani child advocate against child labor.

The award aims to honor those who demonstrate extraordinary efforts to combat child labor and raise awareness internationally.

Recipients are selected based on their impactful contributions, positive international attention, inspiration to others, and constructive change in combating child labor

About the Iqbal Masih Award:

  1. Significance: What is the significance of the Iqbal Masih Award, and what criteria are used to select the recipients?

The Iqbal Masih Award is named after a Pakistani child who was sold into slavery as a carpet weaver at age 4, escaped at 10 and became an outspoken public advocate against child exploitation. In 1994 he received the Reebok Human Rights Award. He was tragically killed a year later at the age of 12 in his native Pakistan.

The award recognizes exceptional efforts to reduce the worst forms of child labor—in view of inspiring and motivating others working toward this end. The award’s two major goals are:

  • To honor and give public recognition to a recipient demonstrating extraordinary efforts to combat the worst forms of child labor internationally, and who shares qualities demonstrated by Iqbal Masih, including leadership, courage, integrity, and a search to end the labor exploitation of children
  • To raise awareness about the worst forms of child labor internationally

The award was created in response to the Senate Committee direction that the U.S. Secretary of Labor “establish an annual non-monetary award recognizing the extraordinary efforts by an individual, company, organization or national government toward the reduction of the worst forms of child labor.”

Recipients of the award are considered based on the extent to which they have demonstrated the following: 

  • Implemented extraordinary efforts that contribute to the reduction of the worst forms of child labor;
  • generated positive international attention in support of efforts to reduce the worst forms of child labor; 
  • Inspired others, including young persons, to become champions against the worst forms of child labor following the spirit and example of Iqbal Masih; 
  • And fomented constructive change regarding the labor exploitation of children under great odds or at great personal cost.
  1. Impact: How do you measure the impact of the work done by the award recipients in eliminating the worst forms of child labor?

As discussed above, the award recipients feature those individuals and organizations who have committed themselves to going above and beyond to eliminate child labor, particularly in its worst forms, and inspiring others both in their communities and worldwide to do the same. The recipients demonstrate leadership, courage, and integrity towards this goal, while advancing and inspiring constructive change in policies and organized actions to end the labor exploitation of children.

  1. Previous Recipients: Can you share some success stories or notable achievements of past recipients of the Iqbal Masih Award?

Past recipients of the award include:

Lalitha Natarajan of India, championed the fight against child labor and modern slavery as an activist and ally for vulnerable communities in India for over 20 years, including by rescuing children from forced labor in various industrial sectors such as food processing factories and handloom mills, and engaging with elected leaders and law enforcement officials to rescue child laborers from stone quarries and supporting their reintegration and development.

Additional information on past recipients can be found on the website: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/issues/child-labor/iqbal 

About Andrews Addoquaye Tagoe:

  1. Selection: What led to the decision to honor Mr. Tagoe with this year’s Iqbal Masih Award?

As Deputy General Secretary of the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) of the Ghana Trade Union Congress, Mr. Tagoe has played a significant role in advancing child and workers’ rights and has been a powerful force in the country’s efforts to end child labor in the agricultural industry. By organizing and formalizing the agricultural economy in rural areas and working with communities to eliminate child labor, Mr. Tagoe has helped thousands of children move from child labor into school. His passionate and effective advocacy has helped to create a strong network of anti-child labor champions in Ghana and beyond. 

  1. Contributions: Can you elaborate on Mr. Tagoe’s specific contributions and achievements in the fight against child labor in Ghana?

Under Mr. Tagoe’s leadership as Deputy General Secretary of the General Agricultural Workers Union of the Ghana Trade Union Congress, all collective bargaining agreements signed by GAWU with agricultural member enterprises include child labor clauses. He has also played a key role in developing and implementing child labor free zones, through which thousands of rural children have been removed from the worst forms of child labor in Ghana. Mr. Tagoe has served as a focal point for engaging on and promoting Ghana’s new National Plan of Action on Child Labor with donors, NGOs, government offices, and other stakeholders. As an influencer in the work against child labor, Mr. Tagoe has galvanized trade union activists to act as child labor-focused coordinators, equipped journalists to drive knowledge on Ghanian child labor, and has inspired children and care providers to advocate at the community level.

  1. Challenges: What challenges has Mr. Tagoe faced in his efforts, and how has he overcome them?

Mr. Tagoe has confronted difficult child labor cases directly through rescues in some of Ghana’s most challenging situations in the Lake Volta region and in industries that are particularly at risk of hazards against children and workers such as palm oil and cocoa. In many cases, Mr. Tagoe has personally supported children rescued from child labor by buying them clothes, donating money to their guardians and parents for their children’s care, supporting their return to schools, and providing them with books and uniforms.

About ILAB’s Efforts:

  1. Global Efforts: Can you provide an overview of ILAB’s global initiatives to combat child labor?

ILAB’s mission is to strengthen global labor standards, enforce labor commitments among trading partners, promote racial and gender equity, and combat international child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. ILAB’s Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (OCFT) produces cutting-edge research and tools, funds targeted technical assistance, and strategically engages with foreign governments, businesses, worker organizations, and other key stakeholders to address these unacceptable labor abuses. OCFT combats the persistence of these exploitative practices in supply chains to ensure that workers in the United States and around the world can compete on a level playing field.

OCFT produces three flagship reports. These are: Findings on the Worst Forms of Child LaborList of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, and List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor.  These reports inform the selection of technical cooperation projects, ensuring that OCFT’s technical assistance is focused on areas where our projects are most needed and can have the greatest impact. Data from these three reports is available in the Sweat & Toil app. In addition, ILAB’s Comply Chain tool provides companies with steps for developing a robust social compliance system for monitoring labor practices in their supply chains.

  1. Collaboration: How does ILAB collaborate with international organizations and local entities to address child labor?

OCFT’s Technical Assistance and Cooperation Unit currently manages an active portfolio of approximately 50 technical cooperation projects to combat child labor and forced labor around the world. These projects make a difference in the lives of children and their families, including through research, education and livelihood support, awareness raising, and by increasing the capacity of governments and other stakeholders to combat child and forced labor. ILAB works with governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations to strengthen laws, enforcement, policies, and social programs to support our goal of ending child labor and forced labor. ILAB is also a founding and active member in the Global Coordinating Group of Alliance 8.7, a global partner to end child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.

  1. Success Metrics: What metrics or indicators does ILAB use to assess the success of its programs?

ILAB develops specific metrics for each project to measure success towards achieving their expected outcomes, and implementers report on their progress every 6 months.  The metrics are tailored towards the specific context of each project.  ILAB also uses certain standard metrics, for each project, for example metrics on increasing capacity to address child labor/forced labor (through improved legal frameworks and enforcement.  ILAB also commissions independent evaluators to assess project effectiveness and to gather learning on the drivers of success, good practices, and lessons learned to apply to future programming.

Finally, ILAB maintains a Knowledge Portal: a searchable online library of resources promotes knowledge sharing, data use, and learning related to ILAB’s technical assistance programming. The portal includes project profiles, evaluation reports, evaluation report learnings, and technical assistance resources.

About Child Labor:

  1. Current Landscape: What is the current state of child labor globally, and which regions are most affected?

An estimated 160 million children are engaged in child labor globally, producing goods and products ranging from cocoa for the chocolate we eat and cotton for the clothes we wear and mining critical minerals for the technology we use. About 79 million of these children are engaged in hazardous child labor, risking injury or death from using dangerous equipment and chemicals or working in dangerous and unsafe conditions. An additional 3.3 million children are engaged in forced labor, with nearly half in commercial sexual exploitation.

Factors such as poverty, marginalization and discrimination against vulnerable social groups, lack of access to schooling and social protection services, and climate change act as key drivers of child labor, including its worst forms. These factors especially compound child labor risks among vulnerable populations and those who face insecure access to economic livelihoods and decent work.

According to the 2020 Global Estimates of Child Labor, progress in combatting child labor in sub-Saharan Africa has proven elusive. This region has seen an increase in both the number and percentage of children in child labor since 2012. There are now more children in child labor in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined. Global child labor goals will not be achieved without a breakthrough in this region.

  1. Policy Influence: How does ILAB influence policy changes at the national and international levels to combat child labor?

ILAB works with governments, civil society, and businesses to ensure that each does its part to protect, implement, and enforce the International Labor Organization’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, including combatting child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. ILAB’s experience demonstrates that all of us need to play a meaningful and constructive role toward achieving genuine and sustainable progress.

ILAB’s flagship report serves as a roadmap for action by governments by offering more than 2,000 country-specific recommendations to address these injustices and protect children through improved laws, law enforcement, policies, and programs. Over 500 (25%) are directed at improving laws. For instance, out of the 131 countries in the most recent publication of the report, 29 do not have minimum age protections that extend to the informal sector; 33 lack prohibitions related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children that meet international standards; and 40 have not adequately prohibited the use of children in illicit activities.

ILAB helps empower civil society organizations to play a critical role in monitoring and responding to cases of child labor, forced labor and human trafficking. The often hidden and unlawful nature of these abuses makes it difficult to obtain accurate and objective information on the nature and magnitude of the problem in a particular country or sector. In addition, when information does exist, there is frequently a lack of independent verification and ways to disseminate the information, hold violators accountable, and monitor follow-up actions for victims.

ILAB’s sustained, ongoing private sector engagement is helping companies confront persistent challenges in eliminating child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking in supply chains. Companies are increasingly looking to ILAB for assistance in pursuing risk-mitigation strategies. ILAB gives these firms the tools they need to understand relevant laws, regulations, and policies, and to model effective strategies for monitoring and remediation. For example, Comply Chain provides companies eight steps for developing a robust social compliance system for monitoring global supply chains.

  1. Future Goals: What are ILAB’s future goals and strategies for eliminating the worst forms of child labor?

ILAB recognizes that strong labor rights, worker protections, and decent work and livelihoods are crucial to eliminating child labor, including its worst forms. ILAB will continue to support technical assistance projects that make a difference in the lives of children and their families, including by increasing the capacity of governments and stakeholders to address child labor and forced labor, as well as providing education and livelihood support.

ILAB continues to broaden its outreach to businesses and trade associations to promote the use of social compliance tools in order to mitigate risks of abusive labor practices and highlight remediation strategies to address child labor and forced labor in global supply chains. ILAB is also supporting supply-chain-tracing research on a global scale and continue to conduct in-depth research on child labor and forced labor, including as a means to support the enforcement of labor provisions in trade agreements and preference programs, targeting priority sectors such as fishing, mining, agriculture, and electronics.

In addition, ILAB’s flagship report and research will have an increased focus on children at higher risk of child labor due to socioeconomic factors, conflict, and climate change. In all of these efforts, ILAB will partner with governments, the private sector, unions, and civil society organizations to strengthen laws, enforcement, policies, and social programs to end child and forced labor.

About Thea Lee’s Advocacy:

  1. Personal Motivation: What drives your passion for advocating workers’ rights, and how has your background influenced your work?

As an economist, I believe that labor markets function more efficiently when workers can exercise countervailing power, both at the workplace and in the political arena. As a human being, I believe that every society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Advocating for workers’ rights – as an economist, as a labor union spokesperson, and now as a government official – seems to me the best way to bring about sustainable change in the world.  

My father came to the United States from China as a little boy and was able to take advantage of the best opportunities the United States can offer. He became an MIT professor and also worked in the Massachusetts state government as chief of capital planning and operations. He and my mother raised me to value equity and rights, and they always reminded me of the challenges their families faced as immigrants here in the United States. I see immigrants around the world – and in the United States today – facing difficult situations and often being denied their rights. Governments need to step up and protect migrant workers’ rights, and I am proud that the Biden-Harris administration is constantly looking for ways to do that. 

  1. Key Challenges: What are some of the key challenges you face in your role, and how do you address them?

It’s a big world out there, and, unfortunately, there are a lot of challenging situations where workers face unacceptable and inhumane working conditions or are denied their internationally recognized rights. Global supply chains are complex, and many multinational companies have little knowledge of conditions in the bottom tiers of their production chains. At ILAB, we use all the tools at our disposal, including research and reporting, trade enforcement and monitoring, technical assistance, and labor diplomacy to increase transparency and accountability, both for companies and governments. Trade tools are especially important, as that is key to taking the profit out of exploitation. Nobody should make money from engaging in or tolerating exploitation, and tying market access to international labor rights is an important avenue.

  1. Inspirations: Are there any particular individuals or events that have inspired your work in labor rights and advocacy?

 I have always admired Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones), a fearless and feisty union organizer in the early days of the United Mine Workers.  

The tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1100 workers died when an unsafe building collapsed, has also reinforced for me the importance of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Workers need the freedom to come together at the workplace – without interference from government or management – to advocate for a living wage, benefits, a voice at work, and a safe and healthy workplace.

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