Business Leaders Agree the Elimination of Child Labor is Everyone’s Business

Photo by Kartikeya Kaul/flickr.

Ridding child labor throughout supply chains is one of the most daunting challenges corporations face today. In a global economy where raw materials are produced in one country, assembled in another, and consumed across a plethora of markets, modern supply chains are complex, and domestic legal protection remains tragically inadequate. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 168 million children around the world are employed as child laborers — 85 million of whom are trapped in hazardous working conditions such as mining and manufacturing, where the risk of injury or even death is significant.

UNICEF gathered experts including the Head of Child Protection at UNICEF and the U.S. Sustainability Manager of IKEA North America to discuss how the private sector can reduce child labor within their global supply chains — the theme of this year’s World Day Against Child Labor — at a panel discussion earlier today.

“We do view child labor, in particular, as the most dangerous and exploitative forms [of human rights abuse] because it is intolerable, both because of its inhumanity and the negative long term consequences for the economic and social well being of the children concerned,” said Kevin Cassidy, Senior Communications & Partnerships Officer at ILO, who mediated the panel.  

The conversation emphasized that, while government has a clear role to play in protecting the rights of their youngest citizens, business should lead the way in taking steps to prevent the incidence of child labor in their supply chains, as the practice only perpetuates the cycle of inequality. Freeing oneself from child labor in supply chains is better for society and for business. Limiting child labor means limiting the of risk of legal consequences, reputational risk, financial risk in cases where shareholders lose buy-in due to a breach of trust, and operational risk in situations where companies are forced to convert to more compliant suppliers.

So, how do companies address child labor in their supply chains?

“Awareness is the first step,” said Lisa Davis, U.S. Sustainability Manager for IKEA North America, who described partnerships as critical to the success of IKEA’s supplier Code of Conduct, IWAY. The multinational home goods manufacturer reports that on average, new suppliers tend to report a compliance rate of 78 percent. In order to reach the 100 percent compliance rate with their minimum set of standards, IKEA contracts with third parties like governments and nonprofits to continually audit their suppliers continually.

“IKEA is incentivizing, creating employees that can own their own commitment and enactment of this policy. Fairtrade [International] does this too,” said Anita Sheth, Social Compliance and Development Senior Advisor of Fairtrade International, which employs a groundbreaking approach to sustainable, global production. “We do assessments, we work with child rights partners, and we report it to the national child protection agency of the government who ratifies conventions. If they are no good, then we report it to child rights partners. Relying on a one year annual audit is not enough,” she said, emphasizing that if companies can incentivize all employees throughout their supply chains to become enablers of human rights from a bottom up approach, then they build a continual monitoring system into their operations naturally.

Panelists also agreed that companies can play a role in addressing the root causes of child labor — such as inequality, lack of access to education, and poverty — to remediate communities and prevent the incidence of child labor going forward.

“One of the things we do at GoodWeave [International] is partner with companies who use our label and work with us to allow suppliers in the country to allow us to access and monitor their manufacturing system,” said Nina Smith, founding Executive Director of GoodWeave International which works to end child labor in the South Asian carpet industry. Once they map out where child labor occurs at the community level through grassroots, investigative work, GoodWeave works with the communities to ensure that all children are enrolled in school and creates programs like their Child Friendly Communities in India, where no underage child is employed. Similarly, IKEA also works with partners like UNICEF to set up local schools to disincentivize parents from sending their children to work.

In any case, all panelists agreed the first step towards eliminating child labor throughout supply chains is to veer towards transparency. “The value of doing due diligence is to identify where the biggest risks are — and maybe that’s the hardest step to take,” said Sonia Mistry, Senior Program Officer of the Solidarity Center which supports collective bargaining and worker representation through unions.

Child Labor in the Context of Humanitarian Crises

The panelists’ conversation echoed the dialogue on the critical need for rapid interventions through partnership following conflicts, emergencies and other humanitarian disasters in which the incidence of child labor often surges, discussed at the World Humanitarian Summit in late May.

Many Syrian families are forced to make heartbreaking decisions for the sake of their survival, for example, pulling their young ones out of school so that they can generate needed income. Thirteen-year-old Khalil would be starting high school now had he not dropped out when the crisis started in order to help his mother at home and earns an income working in the fields. Though he is forgetting much of his studies, he still tries to teach his five brothers and sisters how to read and write.

How Business Can Help

At GBC-Education we understand that there are many factors that pull children into the workforce, including poverty, lack of access to quality education, and of course, disasters and conflicts which break down the economic, social, and familial safety nets that protect vulnerable children. It is no coincidence, however, that countries with the highest numbers of out-of-school children (NIgeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan), are also countries with the greatest incidence of child labor. This is part of the reason why the Coalition formed the Safe Schools Initiative in 2014, and also why we have rallied the private sector to support formal education in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, where many Syrian refugees currently live.

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