The Guardian: A discussion on child labour

21 Jun

A write-up I did for the Guardian Professional Network on a discussion they had with four pannellists and readers, on the International Labour Organisation’s lofty aims to eradicate child labour. Turns out that the ILO couldn’t get governments or companies to make enough efforts to bring about change that would show progress on that target, so they had another pow-wow and decided to make a shorter term target of eradicating “the worst forms” of child labour by 2016. I’m a cynic so I can’t see that happening either. But I thought it was good to see that some of the people working in the field could come up with some modest ideas for things companies could actually start to do to weed out child labour from their supply chains – and recognising that in some poorer countries where companies send a lot of their production work, families will keep sending their children to work so they can all eat and get a roof over their head if there is no other choice. Thus why I called the piece “Pragmatism and best practice”.

Have a read.

Pragmatism and best practice: how can companies tackle child labour?

Can child labour be good? The mouths fed by children who pick cotton and embroider the garments it eventually becomes may think this a rhetorical question. Western companies are under pressure to prove they are weeding out child labour from their supply chain, under the shadow of concerned NGOs whose damnation can move share prices. But the pressure on those companies to engage, directly or indirectly, in child labour to produce more for less, and faster, remains as sovereign as a daily meal is to the aforementioned mouths. How can companies serve the bottom line and tackle child labour at the same time?

To mark World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, Guadian Sustainable Business ran an online discussion to explore tackling the root causes of child labour with readers and four expert panellists. Marianne Barner, Ikea’s senior advisor on sustainability and Joanne Dunn, a senior protection advisor on child labour at UNICEF, joined Carmel Giblin, general manager at Sedex – an information exchange on labour standards and business ethics – and Julia Kilbourne, who leads the apparel and textiles department at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

What policies or guidance form Western companies’ current response to child labour?

In 2010 the International Labour Organization (ILO) published its roadmap for achieving the elimination of “the worst forms of child labour” – those deemed most likely to cause harm to the child – to reinvigorate its 183 member states in the overarching aim of eliminating all child labour, as enshrined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and the ILO Convention, 1973 (No. 138).

The roadmap commits member states to enacting national legislation against child labour and for developing “cross-sectoral national action plans” to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; for regularly reviewing and updating national lists of hazardous work prohibited for children and enforcing sanctions against perpetrators of the worst forms of child labour, strengthening the inspection and monitoring that brings cases to light, documenting relevant court cases and ensuring access to justice for children and families. Its labour market policies require member states to work towards regulating and formalising the informal economy, strengthening state labour inspection and enforcement, and towards “creating an environment” that aims to combat child labour in supply chains.

Principle 2 of the Children’s Rights and Business Principles, published by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children in March 2012, states that all businesses should “contribute to the elimination of child labour, including in all business activities and business relationships”. The Children’s Rights and Business Principles identify good practice as companies taking steps to prevent child labour, enforcing corrective plans that consider the child’s best interests where instances are identified.

How important is local culture to companies trying to eradicate child labour from their supply chain?

How can companies implement a policy on suppliers in regions where child labour may be an accepted fact of life, a necessity for families to survive, or even state-supported? “State-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan (cotton picking to be more exact) is an ongoing problem despite many global brands pledging to avoid cotton from the country,” said reader Helmikelmi.

Dunn says that a zero-tolerance approach to child labour is often undeliverable, suggesting a more pragmatic approach for companies to instead ensure a living wage is paid to its adult workers and that their children have access to school. “Our experience is that efforts to impose exclusionary criteria unfortunately often lead to child labour being hidden or removed from reporting systems,” she says. “Whilst most corporates and local authorities or large purchasers can monitor the first level of their supply chain, subcontractors or homeworkers who provide specific pieces are too often missing from formal systems, providing employment on an ad-hoc informal basis – frequently involving children.” She recommends that companies install collaborative monitoring systems, rewarding suppliers that provide decent work and are transparent in addressing the drivers of child labour.

How much influence do Western companies really have?

It’s on the wane. Julia Kilbourne says ETI’s supply chain map shows Western brands only take a fraction of production from key supplier countries, while non-Western companies are placing more orders with local suppliers. This means Western companies only have a fraction of the influence in driving change.

How can companies take action?

More and more large companies are drawing up anti child labour policies, moving from a pass or fail approach to seeing success as a continual process of improvement. Ikea’s Marianne Barner works with UNICEF and Save the Children on programmes supported by the business to address the root causes of child labour in rural areas (mainly in India).

Drawing up a company policy which includes the Children’s Rights and Business Principles would engage employees in clear corporate thinking. “People working in a company can be great advocates for children’s rights when policies are clear,” adds Barner.

UNICEF’s Joanne Dunn suggests companies appoint a senior board member to report on progress against such a policy and to check newly selected suppliers comply also. That individual can ensure any supplier risk assessment includes an understanding of local realities, says Dunn, “and that business practices do not reinforce bad practice by paying inadequate wages that cannot support a local family,” or automatically exclude suppliers who admit to using child labour.

Can companies support the aim while doing businesses with suppliers that may still use child workers?

That’s why pragmatism is crucial in tackling child labour. Reader Desus argues that in countries where child labour has been officially banned, children have ended up in drug dealing or prostitution. “For millions of families, the only safe alternative to a sufficient income is having their children working. In my opinion, for as long as children are main providers of their family’s wellbeing, corporate responsibility means taking education and safety for children to the workplace”. ETI’s Kilbourne suggests that if a company discovers children in its supply chain, the focus should be on moving swiftly to secure their transition from work into good quality education. That may take time – but however modest a start, it would demonstrate corporate will to meet the ILO’s overarching aim.

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