Posted by Matthew Waller

Protecting children working in global supply chains

This year’s World Day Against Child Labour (12 June) is focussed on child labour in global supply chains, which coincides with more general discussions of labour standards in supply chains at the ILO’s annual conference this week.

The scale of the problem

Concerns about child labour continue to recur. In spite of progress (there are roughly 78 million fewer child labourers across the world since 2000), the ILO estimates that there are still 168 million children in work, over half of whom are engaged in hazardous activities, with many of these working in global supply chains. According to the US Department of Labour 319 goods around the world are produced by child labour.

These children, who are commonly involved in the early stages of production, furthest removed from the consumer, are vulnerable to exploitation and exposure to hazardous working conditions across a variety of sectors. In recent months  alone there have been reports of children employed in hazardous conditions in the agricultural sector on palm oil, tobacco and cocoa plantations, in cobalt and gold mines in the electronics supply chain, as well as being overworked to the point of collapse and death in garment factories.

How best to protect children?

The reasons behind child labour are numerous and complex, and include inadequate social protections or poor enforcement of child labour laws, widespread poverty, informality in the economy, and a lack of or poor quality of education. These circumstances, individually or combined, increase the vulnerability of a child and can push children into work. When children are found to be working, as we have found on several projects, it can often be difficult to accurately verify ages due to inadequate or fraudulent ID documents.

How to best mitigate these vulnerabilities and protect children is something currently under debate. Ever since the first UK Factory Act in 1833, the main approach has been to enforce minimum age limits for working (in 1833 it was nine years old). This approach is enshrined in ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Ages which prohibits children from working under the age of 14 – except for those on small family farms.

However, in January 2016 in an open letter to the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a group of academics, practitioners and child right advocates have called for an authoritative General Comment on child labour which would, as a priority, reference ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which is aimed at preventing children from exploitation in work, instead of foregrounding Convention 138. Such General Comments are used by human rights treaty bodies to offer a comprehensive interpretation of a treaty’s provisions or as general guidance on the information that States should submit to the treaty bodies. For the signatories of the letter, the minimum age approach is not an effective way to prevent children from abuse and exploitation at work. They argue instead that employment can be beneficial to a child’s development, that work and education are not incompatible, and that banning all work can actually cause more harm to children as it can force those children who are too poor not to work into an unregulated, more hazardous and exploitative environment.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has rejected the call to abandon minimum ages in employment, arguing that they are in the best interests of children. They argue that a minimum age requirement and the protection of children at work are not mutually exclusive matters, and for them, a minimum age protects children from working when they are too young, from hours that are too long, from missing out on an adequate education, and from potential exploitation by employers. In their counter to HRW, the signatories of the original letter identify common ground between the two sides of the debate, but refute the arguments made by HRW, stating that the HRW case is not based on empirically tested examples.

The different sides of this debate are exemplified at State level. Canada this week has ratified Convention 138 on minimum age, whilst in 2014 Bolivia controversially introduced legislation that allows children as young as ten to be employed, in an attempt to improve their working conditions through regulating an existing situation.

Child labour and due diligence

Wherever you stand in this debate there is clearly continuing momentum within the international community to seek ways of protecting children from working hazardously. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set a clear target to eradicate all forms of child labour by 2025 and for all the SDGs there is a specific focus on the role of the private sector.

For those companies seeking to address child labour risks, and to do so in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles, the ILO has developed a useful toolkit for companies to improve governance of their supply chains, and implement due diligence and remediation processes on child labour. There is also an ILO mobile app that has recently been developed to help companies tackle child labour in their operations.

Due diligence is, of course, the recommended approach for addressing all forms of human rights abuse within supply chains, not just child labour. But there is an emerging debate also on whether companies should be required to undertake due diligence or whether the voluntarism that is set out in the UNGPs is sufficient.  During the ILO’s annual conference there have been many calls from civil society and trade unions for the development of a binding global standard that would require companies to conduct due diligence. The idea is that this would go further than the due diligence reporting requirements of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act or the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, and be more reflective of the legally binding Bangladesh Accord as an example of how companies should address labour standards. Delegates are reportedly hopeful that the wording in the final conference text could allow the ILO to initiate a new process which could eventually lead to binding convention on decent work in global supply chains.

Any such move would be controversial and would undoubtedly take several years to enact. In the meantime, companies should be mindful that severe human rights abuses, such as child labour, in their supply chains or their own operations will continue to pose major reputational risks that must be managed pro-actively through effective due diligence, whatever the academic debate over minimum ages.