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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 4 December 2000 (continued)

European Agriculture Conference



Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to confirm that there are plans to bring a major European agriculture conference to Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement.

(AQO 441/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I am very pleased to confirm to the Assembly that the National Farmers' Union has announced that the annual conference of the Confederation of European Agriculture is to take place in Belfast in September 2001. This is a major and highly prestigious event which will bring some 700 delegates, and perhaps a further 300 or so people in supporting roles, to Northern Ireland. I am greatly looking forward to my role in preparing and organising the conference, together with the National Farmers' Union, the Belfast Events Company and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Those who attend the conference and visit this part of the world, many no doubt for the first time, will go away with a very favourable impression of Northern Ireland and will have enjoyed a successful conference.

Mr Dallat:

This is indeed a shot in the arm for Belfast and for the whole of Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is a clear statement that agriculture is still alive and well in Northern Ireland, as indeed is tourism?

Ms Rodgers:

I agree enthusiastically with the Member's comments. As well as the obvious economic benefit of having 1,000 visitors staying in Belfast for the best part of a week, and the boost that that can give to the city's business, there are the wider benefits of visitors seeing for themselves all that Northern Ireland has to offer and carrying that message back to their homes and their colleagues throughout Europe. I hope that the agenda for the conference will be drawn up flexibly enough to allow delegates to see something of rural Northern Ireland and its farming practices as well as the city of Belfast.

Farm Retirement



Mr ONeill

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail when she expects the independent study into farm retirement to be completed; and if she will make a statement.

(AQO 434/00)

Ms Rodgers:

My officials have invited bids from organisations with the necessary expertise to carry out the study, which will also cover a new entrant scheme. I would like to see the study completed before the end of February, when the vision group is due to report. I announced an independent study because there is considerable pressure from farming and other interests to introduce an early retirement scheme.

On the other hand, the evidence for the effectiveness of such schemes is mixed, and the vision group did not recommend one in its 'Emerging Themes' paper. Given the different views, I decided that I should seek an independent assessment.

Mr ONeill:

I look forward to the end of February with interest and enthusiasm. If the study comes down in favour of an early retirement scheme, will the Minister undertake to introduce one?

Ms Rodgers:

If the report comes down in favour of an early retirement scheme, I certainly will have to give it serious consideration. However, I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the study. We will also have to be aware of the cost implications, and I will discuss this with the Executive and members of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. Such schemes, as Members will be aware, do not come cheaply, and on the basis of a lump sum scheme covering 750 farmers, the cost, over three years, would be £30 million.

In all probability this would mean committing all the unallocated modulation and match funding money for the years concerned. The annual sums would be less under an annuity scheme but would involve a commitment of up to 15 years, depending on how long the scheme was to operate. Clearly, it would cost a lot of money. I do not want to pre-empt anything. I do not want to pre-empt the fact that I might even have to go with my begging bowl to the Executive and to the Minister, Mr Durkan, in particular. I have initiated the study because I want to make an informed decision on what is the best way forward for the restructuring of the agriculture industry.

Mr Ford:

I welcome the fact that the Minister appears to have a slightly more open mind than, perhaps, her officials have had in the past on the issue of retirement. Can she give us an assurance that she will have a completely open mind on restructuring and on the need to support new entrants to agriculture and put the emphasis on that rather than on the retirement aspect, which is somewhat more negative?

Ms Rodgers:

I assure the Member that I always have an open mind on all issues.

I will have to give serious consideration to the new entrant scheme. I also have to be aware of the cost implications, and I will discuss this with the Executive Committee and the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

A new entrant scheme on its own would undoubtedly be less costly than an early retirement scheme, but to introduce the two together would involve committing all the unallocated modulation and match funding for the years concerned. As I have said, I do not want to pre-empt the study's findings. I have a completely open mind, I always have had, and I am not afraid to change my mind. If I get good ideas from anyone across the Floor, or from the Agriculture Committee, I will take them on board. If they are feasible, reasonable and affordable, I will go with them.

Farmers: Extensification Counts



Mr McHugh

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she will undertake to improve the dissemination of information between her Department and farmers in relation to extensification counts.

(AQO 410/00)

Ms Rodgers:

Comprehensive information about the extensification payment scheme and stocking density reference dates and requirements is provided by the Department to producers. Before the scheme was introduced at the start of this year, a letter was issued to all farmers who had claimed under the previous extensification payment scheme, advising them of the forthcoming changes. In February 2000 this was followed up with guidance notes. The six census dates for the scheme year are announced in the press, and notification is also issued to individual applicants.

Details of the livestock units found on each holding are issued to producers after each census date. The Department is able to calculate and advise producers of their overall average stocking density because of the availability of data from the animal and public health information system, which is not available in other regions. The accuracy of the stocking density information provided to producers is thoroughly tested and checked before being issued. Farmers are encouraged to contact the Department if they have a query about the information. To date, fewer than 180 from over 22,000 applicants for the extensification payment scheme 2000 have done so. My officials aim to provide the best possible information to producers and maintain close contacts with the farming industry to ensure that systems are improved where possible.

Mr McHugh:

A LeasCheann Comhairle. Given the IT facilities and so forth available to the Department, the time lapse experienced by those 180 people should not happen. The Department has figures about the position of farmers, yet it can take up to six weeks for information to filter through. That could be significantly tightened up if the available IT facilities were used. Can the Minister look at ways of shortening that timescale so that complaints are not received from as many as 180 people?

Ms Rodgers:

My Department's officials are constantly looking at ways to provide a better service but as I have said, 180 out of 22,000 is not a staggering number of people querying the information they have received. We would like total perfection, and we are doing our best. It is not a bad record, and if the Member, or any other Member, has suggestions about how we could improve it, I will certainly take them on board. However, additional resources are currently being allocated to IT to improve our effectiveness. I have to compliment my officials because their role is not always an easy one. It has to be remembered that this is a two-way process. The farming community must also play its part in helping the Department.

Mr Byrne:

I note the Minister's answer, and I appreciate that it is difficult for farmers to keep up to date with information about new schemes. Can the Minister tell the House how the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development system compares with that of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in London and with that of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Dublin?

Ms Rodgers:

I am pleased to inform the Member that because my Department has a computerised database, producers in Northern Ireland are not required to make declarations of their bovine animals on each census date. My Department does the calculations and producers receive up-to-date information about their average stocking density levels. Producers in England have to declare the total number of their bovine livestock units on each census date. The information is collated, and producers are notified of their average stocking density at the next census date.

The Republic of Ireland does not have an operational database. Producers, therefore, are required to make declarations on each census date. To sum up, in this instance we are ahead of the posse.

Young Farmers



Mr J Wilson

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the measures she is taking to encourage young farmers to remain in the industry.

(AQO 431/00)

Ms Rodgers:

My Department already provides comprehensive support services to help stimulate the development of a competitive and forward-looking industry. For young people wishing to entry the industry, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development colleges provide a wide range of high-quality courses that enable them to develop their potential while obtaining the necessary expertise to improve business performance. On completion of the course, the young people are encouraged to retain contact with the college, to avail of ongoing college services and to keep in touch with their fellow students.

4.00 pm

Mr J Wilson:

The average age of a farmer in Northern Ireland is approximately 55 years. Does the Minister agree that the most meaningful action she could take to allow young farmers to enter and remain in the industry would be to introduce an early retirement scheme? I appreciate that she has addressed this question in a different form in response to an earlier supplementary question, but I would be happy if she would return to it.

Ms Rodgers:

As I have already said, I have an open mind and I am examining every area. I accept the Member's point that because of the difficulties in the industry there is a fear that young people may not be encouraged to take jobs in farming. Young people are perhaps not being given the same chance because older employees remain in the industry for too long. I am looking at all those issues. I realise that the industry must be restructured. I am awaiting the report of the vision group and also the report of the study that I instigated into early retirement. I widened the latter to enable us to think about the position of new entrants. I will be in a better position to make a decision when I have all the information to hand.

Beef Quality: Additional Allocation



Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she will detail how she proposes to spend the additional allocation of £300,000 for beef quality announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on 20 November.

(AQO 401/00)

Ms Rodgers:

The £300,000 announced on 20 November is supplementary to the £2 million per year proposed for the improvement of beef quality under the Programme for Government. The additional allocation will allow work to begin on quality improvement earlier than was anticipated. The details of the beef quality programme are still under development. I wish to consult the industry, and I will seek the views of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee before finalising the programme. It will also be necessary to take account of EU state aid rules.

However, the options being considered include: first, improving the quality characteristics of replacement heifers from a suckler herd; secondly, improving the quality measures and technical information available on pedigree sires; thirdly, encouraging commercial calf producers to purchase bulls with good performance records; and finally, ensuring the effective adoption of best management practice and modern technology in the beef production sector. I hope that the final programme will cover all these elements. I intend to introduce the full programme as early in 2001 as possible.

Mr McCarthy:

Does the Minister agree that there are two other important issues to consider? The first is the improvement of livestock quality, especially beef from the dairy herd, and the second is the promotion of Northern Ireland beef on the basis of high-quality production based on natural grass and traceability. Does the Minister agree that her Department needs to take further action on both these issues?

Ms Rodgers:

Although improving the quality of beef is an issue, I assure the House that my Department and its advisers also work closely with the dairy sector to make improvements. As the Member is aware, Greenmount College offers courses for farmers who want to improve their milk outputs. We are working constantly on those matters.

Beef Regime: National Envelope Payments



Mr Douglas

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her plans for the national envelope payments within the beef regime for the year 2001; and if she will make a statement.

(AQO 395/00)

Ms Rodgers:

I have not yet decided how I will allocate the increased funds for the beef national envelope in 2001. For 2001, the available funds for Northern Ireland will increase from £2·6 million to £5·2 million. My officials are consulting with the interested organisations on how they want to see the money spent. Before making my final decision I will seek the views of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, and I hope to be in a position to do this very soon.

Mr Douglas:

Given that the Livestock and Meat Commission reports that the quality of beef cattle presented at meat plants has declined, how will the Minister target national envelope payments to encourage improvements in finished beef cattle and, indeed, in the cattle-breeding herd on the maternal side of the equation? I realise that she partly answered this question in her last response.

Ms Rodgers:

I should not like to pre-empt my final decision; I have not yet consulted with the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. I wish to give the Committee an opportunity to consider my suggestions and return its views to me for final adjustment before making any specific proposal or recommendation.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Natural Resource Rural Tourism Programme



Mr Savage

asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if there is to be a process of consultation prior to the initiation of the natural resource rural tourism programme targeted at disadvantaged areas by December 2001, referred to in section 5.4.1 of the Programme for Government.

(AQO 426/00)

Ms Rodgers:

Madam Deputy Speaker - [Laughter] Excuse me - there has been a change of guard. I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not think you had had a sex change. I was about to say that we are getting through the questions very quickly today.

My Department has developed the natural resource rural tourism programme within the Peace II negotiations as part of the next rural development programme, which will run from 2001 to 2006. It is hoped that natural resource rural tourism will help to make up for some of the tourism infrastructure which would have developed over the past 30 years had it not been for the conflict. It is my intention to consult widely on all aspects of the programme, including aims, target areas, possible activities and delivery mechanisms. The consultation is likely to take place early in 2001.

Mr Savage:

Will the programme be on time?

Ms Rodgers:

I certainly hope so.

Mr Hussey:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Following my point of order at the end of Question Time last week under Standing Orders 19(5) and 19(6), I should like to point out that we are in contravention of 19(6).

Moreover, I want to ascertain whether Ms Morrice, the Deputy Speaker who was previously in the Chair, who gave a commitment that she would forward my concern to the Business Committee, has done so and when I shall receive a reply.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The matter was discussed at the Business Committee, which came to the conclusion that there had been adequate time for questions.

Bonded Labour


Mr McGrady:

I beg to move

That this Assembly is appalled by the United Nations estimate that some 20 million people are living in slavery around the world under the bonded-labour system; expresses its concern over the repeated failures of Governments such as those of Pakistan, India and Nepal to take adequate measures to eradicate the use of bonded labour in their countries; calls on the British and Irish Governments to work with their European Union partners to sponsor a resolution at the next United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemning this practice; and urges the International Labour Organisation to ensure at its conference in June 2001 that independent and comprehensive surveys of the extent of bonded labour are carried out in countries where it persists.

The motion is probably the first to come before the Assembly on an international issue. I am rather pleased by that because while Assembly Members deal in great detail with our enormous problems in Northern Ireland, as elected representatives we have a common concern for the problems endemic in today's world.

As individual Members, all of us are imbued with a sense of addressing human rights issues in the Third World and elsewhere. Those could include religious intolerance in east Timor and the Indian subcontinent, or the inequitable distribution of resources on the African subcontinent, which has led to the establishment of undue control by autocratic regimes and domination through individual citizens' governance. In turn, these create, and are associated with, gross poverty and malnutrition. Bonded slavery is another issue that should demand our attention and requires political action. It represents the denial of freedom of individuals, and their control and domination by others.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

Notwithstanding that, there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today - more than twice the number taken from Africa during 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade. Today's slaves are not bought and sold in the public auctions we see in romantic films about slavery. Their owners do not even hold legal title to them. Yet they are just as trapped, controlled and brutalised as the slaves we refer to in history.

One researcher has said:

"slavery is identified by an element of ownership or control over another's life. It includes coercion and restriction of movement."

Last year, in Hull, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:

"Slavery is hidden .Generally, people would not believe that it is possible under modern conditions. They would say 'No, I think you are making it all up, because it is just too incredible.' "

Lest anyone be in any doubt, let me say that slavery does exist today in many forms.

The word "slavery" covers a variety of human rights violations. In addition to "traditional" slavery and the slave trade, those abuses include: the sale of children; child prostitution; child pornography; the exploitation of child labour; the sexual mutilation of female children; the use of children in armed conflicts; debt bondage; the traffic of persons; the sale of human organs; the exploitation of prostitution; and many other practices, particularly under apartheid regimes or former colonial countries.

Bonded labour is one form of that slavery. Persons become bonded labourers simply by taking, or being tricked into taking, loans for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child. They are then forced into working for little or no pay - often seven days a week - to repay that loan. The value of their work is invariably greater than the original sum borrowed. Unfortunately, in many cases the debt passes down through generations - from father to son, from mother to daughter. They receive basic food and shelter as so-called "payment" for their work. Little if any of it goes towards paying off the loan. They are all trapped in that terrible situation.

It is compounded by the fact that many women marry men who are attached to the bonded contract. Their worth is taken into account and they become part of the slave system. It is common to hear of women who are not bonded slaves yet who, because of their spouses' situations, are sexually exploited by the landlords to whom the debts are owed.

4.15 pm

Bonded labour is a form of enslavement. It is ancient and modern. In the Indian subcontinent it took root in the caste system, and it continues to flourish in feudal farming relationships. Following the abolition of slavery, debt bondage was used as a method of colonial labour recruitment for the supply of labour to plantations in Africa, the Caribbean, and South-East Asia.

Today, although slavery is illegal in most countries, it is in fact expanding through a combination of mass migration from poverty, the global demand for sources of cheap, expendable domestic labour, and the fact that many of those enslaved are unaware of their basic human worldwide rights. Poverty and the willingness of people to exploit others are the main reasons for the existence of bonded labour. When people have no land or are without the benefit of education, the need for cash to support their family forces them to sell their labour in times of emergency, such as when a family member needs medical help.

People end up pledging their labour, or even selling some of their children into slavery, in return for being able to pay off their debt. Today, a bonded labourer in India can be enslaved for a paltry £8 to £10 a day, and he will generate enormous profits per year for the bondholder. Slaves are thought to generate an annual profit of some £8 billion to £9 billion for their slaveholders, the so-called bond holders.

Many of those enslaved are usually unaware that they have any legal right to freedom. They are unable to take action to defend their rights because of the threat of violence. They may be bound by a sense of misplaced duty or by ignorance, and they become almost mentally conditioned to the concept and acceptability of slavery.

Bonded labour is particularly common in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Brazil and the Caribbean. In Brazil many thousands of unemployed men are tricked into bonded labour by promises of well-paid work. Verbal contracts are made and they are loaded onto trucks and transported thousands of miles away to work on estates in isolated areas, usually around the Amazon catchment area. These workers incur debt because they are charged for the cost of their tools, their accommodation and their transport. The food and drink they must buy are available only from the site, and therefore from the company shops, at highly inflated prices.

The men have their identity papers and work permits confiscated on arrival at the sites (which are, in fact, military camps surrounded by armed guards) preventing any hope - if there were the will and the ability - to escape. Since no one can work in Brazil without a work permit, the workers are loath to leave the site without any means of supporting their families.

The Brazilian Government have attempted to curb the practice by setting up a single mobile team to investigate complaints across the entire Amazon basin. Raids have been carried out on estates where bonded labourers are held; workers have been released, and some estates have been compulsorily purchased. But this small bureaucratic process fails totally to punish the estate owners who benefit from the bonded labour.

Research in the 1990s found that in Nepal between 70,000 and 100,000 Tharu - the indigenous people of the western region of Nepal - were being exploited in bonded labour. During the 1960s many Tharu were displaced from land which had not been legally registered. With little access to education or credit, and with wages as low as 13 rupees (about 15 pence) per day, many were forced to take loans and become bonded labourers. People ended up working 12 to 14 hours a day for little or no income on land that they had previously owned. That is the great tragedy of Nepal.

All forms of bonded labour are prohibited in India, yet bonded labour is widespread throughout the Indian subcontinent, as I am sure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, are aware from personal experience. Despite the existence of legislation designed to abolish bonded labour, it is estimated that 10 million people are trapped in debt bondage. The majority of these come from the Dalit (the untouchables) or the Adivashi (the indigenous communities) - the caste system. In the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, one in every five labourers is bonded. Twenty per cent are bonded in that so-called modern country.

In November 1999 the human rights organisation Volunteers for Social Justice identified dozens of people being held as bonded labourers in the state of Punjab. The organisation filed a number of test cases from two villages with the local district magistrates. The cases involved 11 women who took loans ranging from as little as £35 to £150 and were working as bonded labourers to pay off those loans.

The landlords responded to these cases by threatening the women and putting them on a "hit list". Unfortunately the police took no action and gave them no protection whatsoever. The magistrate to whom the original complaints were made, and who initiated an investigation into the use of bonded labour, was transferred from his post and out of the area. So there is Government complicity in acts of bonded labour. As from 17 January 2000, no prosecutions have been initiated against the landlords, either for their illegal use of bonded labour or for their threats and intimidation against those who took cases to the proper authorities in a court of law.

We must always be mindful of the prevalence of bonded labour throughout the world and that many products in Great Britain and Ireland, North and South, may be tainted by that slave labour. Many products such as cocoa, steel, cotton and rugs involve bonded labour somewhere along the production line.

In 1998 the International Labour Organisation decided to focus its attention on principles known as "core labour standards", which were designed to protect fundamental rights at work. These standards seek principally to eliminate bonded labour, as well as child labour and discrimination in employment, while ensuring respect for the right of freedom of association and for the right of collective bargaining.

It is important that the Executive, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, and this Assembly, elected by the people of Northern Ireland, focus on the international issue of bonded slavery. I hope that they will work with the British Government, the Irish Government and their European Union partners to sponsor a resolution at the next United Nations Commission on Human Rights session which would condemn this practice.

We should also urge the International Labour Organisation to ensure at its conference in June 2001 that independent and comprehensive surveys are carried out into the extent of bonded labour in those countries where it persists and that monitoring systems are established to record the number of freed bonded labourers and the numbers convicted for enslaving people in this manner. In that way we may get some measure of the progress that is being made - however minuscule. We would then know the dynamics of the process and what could be done to encourage and develop it. It is important that the International Labour Organisation ensure that all Governments allow independent assessments of the extent of bonded labour in their countries. All those involved in developing and enforcing laws on bonded labour must be properly trained in the fields of detection, investigation and prosecution.

There is enough worldwide evidence to demonstrate that slavery and like practices are vast and widespread. One figure tells its own grim story: as we speak, 100 million children are being exploited for their labour, according to recent estimates by the International Labour Organisation. It is important, therefore, that all Governments, including our own, act collectively to eliminate slavery and bonded labour. This Assembly and its Executive could play a central role on this major human rights issue.

I have tabled a similar motion in the House of Commons and it has already commanded the respect and support of a cross-community grouping there. I commend Third World organisations that have brought this matter to a world stage. Organisations such as Trócaire and Anti-Slavery International have actively campaigned for many years, without great support, to have bonded slavery eliminated.

I hope that this motion will receive cross-party support in the Assembly today, that it will be picked up by the Executive and that these motions will be carried forward nationally and internationally, not simply as placebos for conscience but as an active means of eradicating this horrible scourge that our so-called civilisation has tolerated for so long.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr McGrady, who knows me well enough to know what my views are, will now take other Members' views.

Mr Shannon:

People in Northern Ireland are renowned for their generosity. An American gentleman visiting here today said that he was impressed with how the people from Northern Ireland are forever putting their hands into their pockets financially. We do not mind helping charities, and we do not mind physically helping people who are in need. We have a commitment at both a financial and a physical level. That is why I am glad to have the opportunity to support this motion. It also gives the Assembly an opportunity to put on record its support for this motion.

We are all aware of the bonded labour system and slavery. Many of us are aware that people in Third World countries are trying to survive on very meagre wages. We are aware of some of the issues put forward by Mr McGrady, which are serious and concern us all as elected representatives, even though we live in Northern Ireland. We have concern for those who live in the Third World.

I wish to speak on a slightly different issue - fair trade. Perhaps the proposer will take it on board in his winding-up speech. We have probably all been circularised by War on Want on the need for substantial and suitable wages for those people who produce goods that we enjoy every day, and we should take that on board. When you had your cup of coffee or tea today, did you ask yourself where it came from? You probably did not because you have enough things on your mind, but the reality is that the person who produced that coffee or tea is receiving a very meagre price for their product. We pay for it, but those people do not receive the money that they should.

I once put down a question concerning this issue:

"To ask the Assembly Commission what plans it has to introduce the War on Want 'Fair Trade' campaign within Parliament Buildings or to encourage Members and staff to lend support to the campaign."

The Assembly Commission only replied last week, saying that it has

"just received a report [and] will be asking Mount Charles to develop proposals which promote the War on Want Fair Trade campaign with regard to the purchasing of products sold in Parliament Buildings."

As an Assembly, we have started to move in that direction. And that can lead places, with the support of the Members and staff here. We ask people for their support.

As stated in the motion, there are Governments in Third World countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal - and many others, as Mr McGrady said - which have failed to address this issue despite repeated requests to do so. Other countries, in South America, Africa and the Far East, also have bonded labour and slavery. It is called "bonded labour", but it is slavery, with little or no respite for those caught up in it. Members are aware of the fair trade policies that councils throughout Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have supported. Elected representatives and public bodies have pledged to support the fair trade campaign.

4.30 pm

We can have a tangible effect on Third World poverty. However, we must ensure that the money goes to the people who create the products, often in return for very small sums. There are approximately 10 million small- scale farmers who produce tea and coffee but who live in absolute poverty. Those small-scale farmers and producers do not receive a fair price for their products - just 10 pence out of every pound paid for their products goes to the farmers who grow the coffee beans and the tea leaves.

Governments in the countries in which those products are grown have made no effort to help those caught in the poverty trap. Rather, they encourage the unscrupulous middlemen who control the prices. It is the poor farmers who lose out on the money for their crops. If prices are bad or there is overproduction in a particular year, more often than not it is the farmers - the producers - who have to carry the can. They live in the worst conditions: inadequate housing; no clean water; and little or no health care or education for their children. They live in absolute poverty.

The House of Commons has adopted fair trade practice. The Assembly has an opportunity to move along that road. Many people want the profits from the sales of tea, coffee and other products to be given directly to the original producers. At its conference in June 2001 the International Labour Organisation should ensure that bad practice and direct exploitation are halted. The Governments of the countries concerned must react to the opinions of those who buy the product and the opinions of their own people.

This weekend the Government made a magnanimous statement, writing off some Third World debt. That was a significant step by the United Kingdom Government towards helping Third World countries. The United Kingdom Government can take such a significant step, but it is equally important that the Governments of Third World countries in which the exploitation, bonded labour and slavery take place also make a commitment. They cannot and should not ignore the plight of their own citizens.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Debt bondage is already outlawed under article 1 of the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. However, global economic forces dictate how economies in developing countries operate. We are appalled by the fact that such forces cause almost 44 million people to live as slaves, but we should not be surprised. Multinational companies demand cheap labour because of their obsession with profit. That obsession determines the fate of millions of children, women and men in so-called democracies. Using unpaid forced labour constitutes an excellent way to bolster economic profit. Governments in the First and Third Worlds support such companies and allow them to maintain cheap production costs in order to improve their competitiveness in the global market.

In countries such as Pakistan, India and Nepal families have little choice but to send their children into bonded labour or into armies or to sell their daughters as sex workers.

Human rights abusers act with impunity despite laws intended to abolish slavery. Government officials abuse their power to limit the judiciary and the press. Many Western Governments, including the British Government, sell arms to military forces and groups - arms used to enforce the abuses surrounding the issue of bonded labour.

A case in point is that of Iqbal Masih, who was gunned down outside his grandmother's house in Pakistan. The 13 year old had been bound out to a local carpet maker at the age of four. He worked 12 hours a day tying knots at a carpet loom to pay off his father's debt of $12. When he was 10 he escaped and joined the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, a human rights organisation founded in 1988 to put pressure on the Government of Pakistan to enforce existing laws prohibiting child and bonded labour.

Over the next few years Iqbal helped to free some 3,000 children from bonded labour before he was murdered. His murder demands that all right-thinking people put an end to this terrible abuse. Children like Iqbal - modern-day slaves - are trapped in a system that forces them to work to pay off loans incurred by their families for basic necessities such as food and medical needs. They work unconditionally for their entire lives.

India alone has some 44 million child workers under 13 years of age, both bonded and illegal, in the carpet- making industry. The children make products that many of us in the Western World use - silk, leather, matches, glass, gemstones, salt, soccer balls, sports clothes and fireworks.

Nike, the huge sporting company, is one of the greatest exploiters of child slavery. We should remember that when we are buying our Christmas presents of trainers, football boots, footballs and sporting clothes. Those who manufacture these products are the disposable people in a global market of fat-cat industrialists. There are also examples of bonded labour much closer to home than India and Pakistan. The plight of domestic servants employed by people working at the World Bank was highlighted last month on television. Also, children are working as nannies and domestic servants in the homes of the rich in England, Ireland and Europe.

Globalisation provides ever more opportunities to exploit people for profit. While we are on the issue of the rights of workers, we should also look at the wages paid to our disadvantaged communities in the North and the welfare-to-work schemes which lock our young people into conditions resembling slavery.

This is a well-intended motion, and I thank Mr McGrady for tabling it. However, we need to concentrate our efforts on what we can do to influence and change this deplorable situation. We must examine how we can support and promote fair trade here. More importantly, we need to be clear on the reasons for child slavery. Are our aims for economic development really so different here in the North, or anywhere else in Europe?

We need to highlight the work of Anti-Slavery International, global exchange movements and LASCO, an organisation that helps street children in Brazil. We need to eradicate the old forms of slavery and tackle the development of new forms of slavery, including the trafficking of people, and the related practices of debt bondages, forced prostitution and forced labour. These are all violations of the most basic human rights. Anti- Slavery International makes some specific recommendations which are included in Mr McGrady's motion. The key themes, which have been mentioned by Jim Shannon, are to support fair trade, to examine the sourcing of goods for the Assembly, and to examine how the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment use the public purse. I support the motion.

Mr Neeson:

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate today, and I thank Mr McGrady for bringing this matter to the attention of the Assembly. This is not the first Third World issue that we have dealt with, and it reflects very well on the Assembly that we are indeed dealing with it.

In the motion Mr McGrady points out the problems of bonded or forced labour in Pakistan, India and Nepal. Incidents include child labour in Asia, which in India alone are currently estimated at between 115 million and 150 million.

We also have the problem of the indigenous population of Latin America, and Mr McGrady spoke about Brazil. Immigrants are coming into Western Europe and the United States, and they are now arriving on our doorstep in the Republic of Ireland, looking for some worthwhile employment, and we all know the problems that they face. Prison labour in China is another major issue that must be recognised.

The problem is not a new one but it is getting worse, and there have been major attempts to deal with it. Some measures are already in existence: the International Convention of 1926, which outlawed slavery, and the supplementary UN Convention on the abolition of slavery in 1962; the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which we as a body fully support; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on which we as an Assembly have been working actively for some time. We also have the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which have been adopted by many countries but so far have not been adopted by the United Kingdom; the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Tripartite Declaration of Principles on multinational enterprises and social policy; the ILO Convention Number 29, which has an explicit ban on debt labour; and the ILO Convention Number 182, which eliminated child labour but which, unfortunately, has not been adopted by the United Kingdom. There is also the ILO's 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Attempts have been made to address this problem. Is working through the United Nations alone an appropriate way forward? Would it not be more appropriate to raise these issues with the World Trade Organisation rather than just with the United Nations? We should also advocate applying these criteria to the actions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Recently various international protests have taken place over world trade and world debt. On the question of world debt, I was particularly pleased over the weekend when John Prescott fully supported Jubilee 2000, which is aimed at cutting all world debt and which the Assembly has already been associated with.

The use of bonded and slave labour throughout the world also has an impact on the Northern Ireland economy. We can already see a serious decline in traditional industries, particularly textiles, because of production overseas by bonded and slave labour. This matter has much wider implications than those suggested in the motion, which I welcome and support. I suggest that we recommend to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that it would be worth their while approaching the World Trade Organisation as well as the United Nations in an effort to have this matter dealt with.

4.45 pm

Ms Lewsley:

I would like to focus on the issue of child bonded labour. The International Labour Organisation defines exploitative child labour as

"work that deprives children of their childhood and their dignity; which hampers their access to education and the acquisition of skills; and which is performed under conditions which are harmful to their health and their development."

Poverty and inequality create the conditions in which exploitation flourishes. While many of us would like to think that slavery was abolished almost 200 years ago, it still exists in many countries, albeit by another name - exploitation. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signatory states are obliged to promote child development and protect the rights of children in the community and family. A child is entitled to an adequate standard of living; physical and mental health; social security; education; and freedom from the dangers of sale, trafficking, sexual abuse and the illicit use of drugs. States are committed to protecting children from economic exploitation and work that may be harmful to their education, health and well-being.

Despite this, as my Colleague Mr McGrady said, many families in Third World countries are forced to send their children to work to help pay off loans subject to exorbitant rates of interest or to make them contribute in other ways towards the family's income. Abuses faced by children in the community and the family range from ill-treatment in institutions to violence in families and from trafficking to child bonded labour - a system by which children are born or sold into virtual slavery to pay off family debt.

Children can often be seen working in dangerous and unhealthy environments such as factories, mines, brick kilns and brothels. Some are shackled to their machines to prevent escape, and others are beaten or raped by their employers. Even though many countries such as India have anti-slavery legislation, this abuse persists because the law is not enforced.

Rich landlords and employers can persuade the local police and magistrates to turn a blind eye to these illegal practices. Often a lack of education means that children and their families are unaware of their rights and are therefore forced to work for a pittance in appalling conditions. Employers prefer to use children for cheap labour because they are more docile than adult workers and can be forced to work in hazardous conditions. Many children are abandoned and forced to live on the streets, trying to eke out a living through slave labour or prostitution. They often fall foul of the law and suffer torture, ill-treatment and abuse at the hands of the police and state authorities.

There are no easy solutions to this issue. While we abhor the idea of child labour, many families are dependent for survival on the small income their children bring in, so effectively it would be disastrous to stop children working. We need to know what can be done to alleviate the poverty that necessitates children being forced into unsavoury work. Many organisations such as the International Labour Organisation, Oxfam and Save the Children are actively working to limit the type of work children do and to improve working conditions and reduce working hours so that children can continue their education. It is necessary to stamp out the illegal practices of many employers and to close brothels specialising in the use of child prostitutes. But this is a drop in the ocean, given that there are an estimated 120 million working children in the world, and possibly as many as 250 million. Punitive measures have proved unworkable and are difficult to enforce. In addition, the resultant increase in financial poverty would exacerbate the situation of the children and their families.

In the short term organisations and Governments throughout the world need to work to eradicate extreme forms of child exploitation and alleviate the plight of those who are suffering the most terrible degradation. An effective rehabilitation strategy is intrinsic to this work to avoid worsening the situation and driving many into further poverty, or even onto the streets, thus making them more vulnerable to exploitation, which would only perpetuate the problem.

Realistic time frames must be set and agreed with the countries involved to enable the regulation of working conditions for children. Age limits also need to be set to make it illegal for young children to be forced into work. Social and economic measures will have to be taken to tackle the root causes of poverty to enable the Governments concerned to deal with the illicit trade of children.

It is our duty to call on the British and Irish Governments and the European Union to demand of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that Governments in India, Pakistan, Nepal and South America enforce the eradication of child labour. I support the motion.


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