Blog: Children’s rights issues - a blind spot for the Nordic’s largest companies

Companies must strengthen control over their supply chain, writes Théo Jaekel and Jasmin Draszka-Ali

A recent study by the Global Child Forum shows that the Nordic’s largest companies underperform when it comes to managing risks associated with children’s rights in their global supply chains. The average score for the 299 Nordic companies assessed is 2.0 out of a maximum score of 9, which is lower than the average score (2.9) for the global companies surveyed.

The low average score clearly indicates that children’s rights are still a blind spot for the majority of our Nordic companies.

The Global Child Forum study examined corporate governance and accountability at board level, policies and reporting, as well as partnerships with child rights organisations. The results show that children’s rights are neglected since only 10% of the assessed companies hold their board accountable for children’s rights and only 7% include the issues in their risk assessments. Among the surveyed companies, 73% have a child labour policy, but only 17% report about the results, and only 12% of the companies are working on child rights issues in addition to child labour.

The report confirms that the majority of the Nordic companies assessed still fail to take a holistic approach to child rights issues and to see them in a bigger picture, in connection to their global supply chains.

In order not to end up on the bottom in this type of study in the future, and to ensure that children’s rights are respected throughout a company’s supply chain, companies need to see children’s rights in a wider context. They have to reflect on how parents’ low wages and excessive overtime, as well as a lack of community resources such as clean water or limited access to education have child rights repercussions. In addition, companies must also consider the impact they may have on children through for example marketing, their end product and working conditions here in Sweden.

It is important to understand that safeguarding children’s rights requires more than combatting child labour. A clear example of this is how migrant workers’ working conditions affect their children. In China alone, 61 million children are left behind in villages, far from their parents as they migrate to find work at factories in coastal areas. A whole generation of children is growing up without seeing their parents for extended periods of time. Here, companies have a responsibility to review what options they offer their employees to combine work and parenthood.

Two other issues which are central to children’s rights, are those of modern slavery and an increased flow of refugees. It is vital that companies are aware of, and effectively deal with, these challenges through their supply chain sustainability initiatives.

When it comes to modern slavery, ILO estimates that 21 million people worldwide are trapped in some form of forced labour, of which 90% are subjected to forced labour as part of companies’ global supply chains. Furthermore, half of those working in slave-like conditions are women. It obviously has a major impact on children’s rights when parents, especially mothers, are trapped into forced labour, which in turn often leads to their children also being exploited. It is particularly worrisome to see that companies that operate in high-risk sectors of modern slavery, such as the tourism and food and beverage industry, score so low in the Global Child Forum report, ending up on 1.6 and 1.7 points respectively, indicating serious shortcomings in combating these risks.

Displaced people and the increasing flow of refugees is a major challenge and ought to be a priority for society as a whole, including business. Over 65 million people globally are displaced today, which is the highest figure ever. Of these, 51% are children. The ability for displaced parents to work has a direct impact on children’s rights. Unfortunately, due to both legal and practical obstacles, many, especially women, are forced into informal sectors where the risk of exploitative working conditions and trafficking is high. This also becomes a part of global supply chains.

In order to control these risks and ensure that children’s rights are respected throughout the production of the goods and services provided by Nordic companies, business must strengthen control over its supply chains. Global Child Forum’s study shows that 51% of companies give to charity linked to child rights issues, but only 15% have implemented these issues within their operations and formed partnerships in areas that are critical to the way the company operates.

It is time that children’s rights are considered not only as a question of charity, but instead made a central part of corporate responsibility and risk management. This is achieved only through clear commitments in steering documents, accountability at board level and continuous control and monitoring of supply chains. A corporate perspective on these issues must broaden beyond looking for possible child labour. Children’s rights encompass a full range of other areas and as long as Nordic companies continue to score poorly in international surveys, it will be hard for Sweden to stay on top as a sustainable nation.

Théo Jaekel, Senior Specialist: Human Rights and Supply Chain and 
Jasmin Draszka-Ali, Associate
 Advokat firman Vinge 

Authors

This article first appeared in Swedish online in Aktuell Hållbarhet