How businesses can avoid buying into child labour

The global demand for cheap goods has resulted in a rise in child labour. Businesses face an uphill struggle in combating the problem

A child labourer in India. International companies need to do more to ensure that child labour is not present in any part of their production chain

According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 215 million children between the ages of five and 17 work under conditions that are both hazardous and illegal. In countries such as India, the Philippines, Bangladesh and the Ivory Coast, children work for as little as 30p a day, completing 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. The most common sectors include commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining and domestic service.

An increasingly globalised supply chain means the issue can prove incredibly difficult to root out. However, on seeing that the repercussions are grave – affecting investment, funding and revenue, and damaging reputations beyond repair – more and more businesses are engaging with the issue.

Child labour is illegal under a number of acts and laws. The UN’s international convention on child labour defines it as work that children should not be doing because they are too young to work, or – if they have reached the minimum age – because it is dangerous or otherwise unsuitable for them.

The convention defines a child as anyone below the age of 18 years old, and states children should have the right to education (Article 28) and protection from economic exploitation (Article 32). However, despite the convention being the most endorsed human rights treaty in the world, many companies have fallen foul of the law.

An increasingly globalised supply chain means child labour can prove incredibly difficult to root out

Learning from past mistakes
The Child Labour Coalition charity believes companies have a duty to stop child labour. When operating abroad, they must do so responsibly, with due care for people, raw materials, the environment and their surroundings.

Reid Maki, Director of Child Labour Advocacy and Coordinator at the Child Labour Coalition, believes it is difficult to praise the corporate efforts to stop child labour: “In our experience, even the well-intentioned companies have problems in their supply chains. In some cases, they do some things well and other things not so well. Even if, for example, an electronics company does a good job of monitoring factories for child labour, the components of their electronics items often have ores or minerals mined by children in hazardous conditions.”

Maki named Divine Chocolate and Patagonia as companies that are taking interesting approaches to tackling the child labour industry. The methods include confronting social responsibility issues and working closely with farmer cooperatives to help improve farmer revenue and create community approach to reducing child labour.

Moreover, media scrutiny appears to have triggered progression: in 2004, Human Rights Watch exposed the fact that Coca-Cola’s sugar supplier in El Salvador used sugar cane harvested by children. Since this damage to the company’s reputation, Coca-Cola has launched various projects to stop child labour. According to the company, it now “takes key measures when evaluating new suppliers throughout its global supply chain”.

For example, Coca-Cola has created a ‘soccer ball pre-certification system’, which identifies and pre-certifies compliant suppliers. The risk of child labour in soccer ball production is high, as children are often employed to hand-stitch soccer ball panels together. The new system implemented by the company directs procurement teams to only buy soccer balls from pre-certified suppliers.

Additionally, following the 2004 report, Coca-Cola has now collaborated with ILO-IPEC in its work with the Salvadoran sugar industry, local foundations, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government. This has resulted in considerable reductions in incidences of child labour in sugarcane harvesting.

Companies can do better
It is common that CEOs and management are not adequately informed about the initial stages of production, which could take place in factories that exploit child labour. Supply chain management is vital in tackling the issue, as a complex global supply chain usually obscures awareness. CEOs and management can make use of new technologies that track production from the first stages to the point of sale.

In the eyes of NGOs, the failure of supply chain management is not an excuse. Maki told The New Economy: “Although we acknowledge that removing child labour from supply chains is difficult, we believe it still exists because of a lack of commitment from the corporate world and a desire to seek the cheapest possible manufacturing costs.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are internationally agreed guidelines to help businesses eliminate child labour

“I believe that companies that profit from the labour of children have a responsibility to investigate all the corners of their supply chain. Many global companies are hugely profitable, making tens of billions of dollars. They have the resources to police their supply chains to greater depths, but choose not to.”

One solution to this issue is pinpointing the location of import for products, and tracing the original production factory, ensuring workers are of a legal age and work in safe, comfortable conditions.

Businesses can also research policies and practices, and ensure these regulations are applied to the workplace. Doing so fosters a culture that promotes responsible conduct. Child labour laws can be discussed at AGMs, in order to involve wider business partners and shareholders in the movement against illegally employing children. Furthermore, regular reviews and updates on procedural guidelines set by the International Labour Organisation should be implemented in order to monitor the supply chain.

There are many certified guidelines available to businesses that want to enforce the prevention of child labour. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are internationally agreed guidelines to help businesses eliminate child labour. Both guidelines state companies should carry out due diligence in their entire supply chain. Core elements of this due diligence involve identifying, preventing and repairing human rights violations in the entire supply chain and actively reporting on them.

Preventing child labour not only avoids reputational consequences, but also promotes corporate decency and strengthens partnerships. More and more companies are merging with charities to launch campaigns against the industry. However, essentially the solution to the problem is tighter supply chain regulations, and transparency is vital in the movement against child labour.

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