The world has taken on a tremendous task: to eliminate child labour. Global Goal for Sustainable Development no 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth states that by 2025 child labour in all its forms shall be eliminated. This is ambitious as the target is supposed to be reached five years earlier than 2030, the end date for the Global Goals as a whole.
At the same time, the latest report on child labour from the International Labour Organization (ILO), shows that even though child labour is on the decline, it’s not declining fast enough, and in recent years, the pace has slowed considerably. At the current rate, the ILO estimates that by 2025, 121 million children will still be in child labour.
So, what are we doing wrong? And more importantly, how can we improve, so that child labour can finally be a thing of the past?
The big disconnect
In the last 10 to 15 years we’ve seen an increased awareness among the corporate sector in understanding the importance of their role in the elimination of child labour. Initiatives such as the UN Global Compact, which calls on companies to align their operations and strategies with principles such as human and child rights, have urged companies to develop policies against child labour. And many have heeded this call.
In the Global Child Forum and Boston Consulting Group’s Corporate Sector and Children’s Rights Benchmark Study Series, we have systematically assessed over 2,500 companies across nine industries using seven indicators to screen publicly available information.
The data shows that 57% of companies have some form of policy against child labour. However, only 26% report transparently on the outcomes of their policies, and a mere 12% identify a child rights issue, like child labour, as material to their business. Upon a closer look, we find that while a majority of the companies have a sentence in their Code of Conduct prohibiting child labour (and at times this provision extends also to their suppliers), there is no mention of how this policy is implemented, where the responsibility for compliance or follow-up lies, or even what to do if child labour is found. This puts into question the real impact of such a statement. As the above statistics infer, among many companies there is a big disconnect between policy and good practice.
No quick fix
One of the challenges businesses have in putting policy into practice is that child labour is a complex issue and doesn’t involve a quick fix. Child labour occurs due to various cultural, socio-economic and political reasons and is systemic in nature. Also, businesses might have direct control over their own operations, they have less influence and control over their suppliers; particularly as supply chain tiers go further upstream.
In the Global Child Forum report “Child Labour Policy: A Child-Centred Approach” we present a set of 10 business approaches to combat child labour together with examples of business practices that show promise. These approaches aim to provide innovative pathways for companies that want to begin their journey of responding to child labour risks, ensuring they comply with their responsibilities, and then continue on, achieving increasingly sustainable methods to support accountability for eradicating child labour. These approaches can be summarized in three main points for companies to consider:
Moving beyond compliance
The reasons why people, communities and businesses behave the way they do are complex. Even well-audited companies can contravene minimum social standards because they focus more on averting liability rather than take up responsibility for their social impact. Instigating change so that people in societies and economies make different choices takes time and a shift in attitudes. In order to foster this type of social change, solutions require more than tick box compliance approaches. Rather, companies must start to consider adaptive processes that consider cultural resistances and motivations of their internal and external partners.
Once a child labour policy is in place and due diligence process assessing of child labour impact and risks have been carried out, businesses can take a number of next steps. Traditional approaches have seen companies engage in child-focused philanthropy and funding of initiatives that aim to improve children’s lives. In such a scenario, businesses are encouraged to ensure that all initiatives funded are related to its operations or commercial remit. Philanthropy in an unconnected sector cannot offset harm done by the company’s own operations and supply chains.
Some businesses go a step further and develop their own social sustainability programmes with child wellbeing as their core focus, often partnering with specialist organisations on the ground. In all cases, businesses are recommended to ensure they have a monitoring and evaluation plan in place that measures the effectiveness and impact (both postive and negative) of its interventions.
Leaders in the corporate sector go steps further, building industry coalitions, and even leveraging governments to upgrade their systems of child education or labour enforcement. These actions recognise that child labour never occurs in a vaccuum. It really takes all actors to work systemically to ensure children are better protected, such as by being in school, growing up in a family with adequate livelihood and being supported by resourced communities. Through these innovative and strategic actions, businesses are increasingly showing a higher level of accountability in working together with communities and governments to reduce child labour risks. In essence, the most forward thinking businesses are transforming the purpose of sustainable business to not only ensure no harm to children, but that children are valued as integral stakeholders.
Aarti Kapoor is the Director and Lead Consultant of Embode, an international human rights consultancy. She has spent the last 16 years working on children’s rights issues, with a particular focus on child protection, child labour, child trafficking and exploitation across Asia, Africa and Europe.
In her lead role with Embode, Aarti manages a broad child rights portfolio across Asia and Africa. This has included projects in child labour in cocoa supply chains in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia, migrant labour vulnerabilities in the palm oil sector of Malaysia, gathering effective practices in child participation in Cambodia.
Aarti has worked across the civil service and law enforcement sectors, for both local and international NGOs, as well as the corporate sector. She is also a qualified lawyer in both the UK (England and Wales) and the US (New York state) and has an LL.M in Law and Economics, and a M.A. in Systems Leadership and Organisational Analysis.
As Research Manager, Nina’s main area of responsibility is to lead and develop the work on the Corporate Benchmark Studies on children’s rights that Global Child Forum produces in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group. In addition to this work, she also takes on other research projects and works on developing the content/inviting speakers for Forums and events.
She has previously worked at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, the Swedish Teacher’s Union, the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation – SweFOR in Colombia and SonyEricsson. She has also held the voluntary position of group secretary for Amnesty Business Group Sweden and been a member of the Board of Directors at Amnesty Sweden.
She has a Master’s Degree in Political Science with a focus on human rights and development from Lund University in Sweden. Nina joined Global Child Forum in 2015.