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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 969

Senator SPINDLER —My question is directed to the Minister for Trade. I refer to yesterday's notice of motion standing in my name relating to child labour and ask: is the minister aware that some manufacturers in countries trading with Australia employ child labour under appalling conditions, either directly or through subcontractors? Given that the government has recently acted against child sex exploitation in other countries, is the government prepared to take legislative action against this equally obscene practice and, in particular, to prohibit imports produced using child labour?

Senator McMULLAN —Mr President, it is a serious question Senator Spindler raises. I am not sure that it is well handled by comparing it with the child sex exploitation question—I am not sure that adds to the debate—but I understand the point he is making about our universal concern for the rights of people, particularly children. That is a proper matter for us all to be concerned with.

  The protection of vulnerable groups in society is a fundamental objective of our human rights policy. The provisions on child labour in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—to which Australia is a party—are a binding obligation on the state parties to the convention. We call on all the other parties to take appropriate measures to end child labour as provided for in the convention.

  We recognise that the problem of child labour exists in our region—undoubtedly in some countries that trade with Australia—but the first thing to recognise is that child labour does not come about because parents in those countries care less about their children or delight in having their children go out to work. It occurs for the same reason that it used to occur in what are now the industrialised countries, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It is fundamentally a result of poverty.

  We need to look at how we might contribute to poverty alleviation and take away the cause of this problem rather than seek to take trade sanctions which will do nothing to reduce the level of poverty in the country and may make it worse. That, of course, relates particularly to issues like aid and assistance for economic growth which will contribute to poverty alleviation. We need to look at things that will do some good in dealing with the problem with which we are confronted, not things that will make us feel good about our attitude, our way of expressing our repugnance of this practice, which we all share. I am sure we all share Senator Spindler's proper concern about it.

  It is going to be extremely difficult to envisage how one would actually identify products that are exclusively the product of child labour, what the consequences are of imposing trade sanctions against countries which are often major trading partners of ours, and how we would get the authority to inspect and establish in the countries of origin what the labour practices are. Even if we can always identify the factories from which things come at the last stage of production, we may not be able to establish the people who contributed—

Senator Bell —It is not that difficult.

Senator McMULLAN —Yes, I realise a lot of things are easy if one is sitting on the other side; they are not always so easy from the government side. I heard someone say, `Just do the ones we identify.' So the people who are good at disguising their obnoxious behaviour should continue to trade with us, but not the ones who do it so openly! There are important measures for the ILO to take. There are important measures to be taken under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are trying very hard to work on improving labour standards in our region. It is a very broad issue about which we need to do positive things through our support for the ILO in Asia, through our tripartite government, union and employer delegations into the region seeking to improve labour standards in the region. This whole question of the relationship between trade and labour standards is an issue which needs serious, careful consideration. Why do we not take trade sanctions against X? What do we think they might do in response? What are the consequences for us? Those things need to be assessed. (Time expired)

Senator SPINDLER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I refer the minister to a number of articles published in the Far Eastern Economic Review by Hamish McDonald quoting sociologist Mr Juyal, who says that the most effective way to deter these practices in those countries is to apply economic sanctions and to refuse entry to our country of goods that are manufactured under these conditions. If we can identify goods that are being dumped in our country, surely we can identify goods that are being produced under these conditions. If the government had the political will, I suggest that it could be done. Can the minister give us an assurance that no Australian companies, having gone offshore with their manufacturing activities, are involved in that practice, either directly or through subcontractors?

Senator McMULLAN —It is not reasonable to assume a monopoly of concern just because Senator Spindler thinks there is an easy solution to problems and the rest of us think it is hard. It is worth examining, it is serious, and it will take a long time to come up with an effective course of action against this. It will have to be a multilateral solution; it cannot be a bilateral solution. We will be a positive contributor to the international debate about how this issue should be resolved, but we are not going to be running off half-cocked about bilateral feel-good measures that will not reduce child labour by one iota. There is plenty of evidence that, if the poverty continues and the employment opportunities close, the young people go into much less pleasant forms of labour to earn income for the family. There is substantial evidence that that is the first response. I do not want to be a party to doing something feel-good that makes the problem we are trying to deal with worse. (Time expired)