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10 Jun 2022

Ines Kaempfer, CEO, The Centre for Child Rights and Business

Eradicating child labour requires urgent action and change: what should companies do?

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The Centre for Child Rights and Business

A young girl who was supported by The Centre for Child Rights and Business

Year after year, campaigns like the World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June remind the world that child labour is still a pressing issue that will not go away without urgent action and change.

The hope which had been growing in the previous 10 years that child labour figures were shrinking was dashed in 2020 when updated figures showed child labour cases had increased.

Most companies have focused their child labour prevention efforts on Tier 1 of the supply chain and lack systems and processes to systematically prevent and remediate child labour beyond a ‘we do not accept child labour’ statement. As a result, child labour has simply been pushed into less visible parts of supply chains and the informal sector. UNICEF is concerned progress to eliminate child labour has completely stalled due to the pandemic, and projects an additional 8.9m children will be pushed into child labour by the end of 2022.

In the last three years, The Centre for Child Rights and Business (The Centre) has conducted 16 child rights risk assessments for international companies in different regions, covering manufacturing, raw materials, agriculture, and mining. All of these risk assessments have identified cases of child labour.

That we were asked to do these assessments, however, indicates a shift in mindset among some companies ready to embark on journeys to look at child labour issues more systematically. Working with these companies, we have delivered remedy to address over 600 cases of child labour, removing children from work and returning them to education or vocational training.

This shift goes hand-in-hand with a change in attitude among the leading companies, where finding child labour is no longer considered a sign of “failure” but a sign of functioning monitoring and due diligence processes. This is supported by a large push for human rights due diligence (HRDD) legislation in key consumer markets, including the European Commission’s Proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence.

These are positive developments, but we are far from achieving our goal to eliminate child labour.

The theme of this year’s World Day Against Child Labour is “Universal Social Protection to End Child Labour” because before 2020, over half (53%) – as many as 4.1bn people – did not enjoy any form of social protection benefit. This staggering figure shows a collective failure from both governments and the private sector. Both need to do better. Given that large parts of the private sector’s profit margins are built on the hard work, long hours and low income of millions of supply chain workers, the private sector shoulders a particular responsibility to act without delay.

If we really want to tackle child labour and other key human rights risks in supply chains, companies can start by transparently and proactively acknowledging child labour exists, even if it is not immediately visible in Tier 1. This can go parallel with a shift in product and sourcing decisions that factor in the cost of a fair living wage and decent working conditions (including social security) for those involved in the production process. Major issues like the pandemic, the war in the Ukraine and climate emergencies are adding additional barriers onto the path to change. Decisive action and tough decisions are therefore needed even more so to seriously tackle child labour in supply chains.

Companies have it within their power to increase visibility and traceability, allocate more funds to build robust prevention and remediation mechanisms, shift resources to support lower tiers, and directly engage with communities, grassroot organisations, and the workers and children themselves to monitor and address child labour cases in all tiers. These processes might impact our bottom line in the short term, but they will contribute to a fairer supply chain – fairer for its workers and their children – and are a necessary development to tackle many of the major issues that plague supply chains today.

By Ines Kaempfer, CEO, The Centre for Child Rights and Business