Of all the heartbreaking effects of COVID-19, its impact on young people could prove to be one of its most damaging legacies. In fact, the coronavirus crisis risks turning back the clock on years of progress made on children’s well-being and has put children’s rights under serious pressure across the globe. Issues of access to education, domestic abuse, child labour and lack of decent work are some of the many challenges that those of us working in social sustainability are grappling with. While NGOs, such as Global Child Forum, as well as governments around the world are turning their attention to these problems, I believe that business has a key role to play in finding solutions.
Dark reality of Covid-19 children & youth
No doubt, the effects of the pandemic are already taking a devastating toll on millions of people. But children and youth are especially vulnerable to the greater societal shifts being witnessed as a result of the virus. For example, as children around the world are being asked to learn remotely through digital tools, access to education has become challenging, making the stark digital divide in education more apparent. While laptops and iPads were once a pastime luxury, they are now an educational necessity that not all can afford. New data shows that half of the students out of school due to COVID-19 can’t access online learning and, according to UNESCO, nearly 830 million children don’t have access to a computer at home. The daily schools lunches are also now missing, which for many children was their key source of nutrition.
While some children are safe and secure in their home environments, for others it’s a darker reality. Being confined at home puts some children at increased risk of domestic violence and other forms of abuse, including child trafficking, and online bullying.
Even though child labour was a sad reality before corona, the pandemic has exacerbated this reality as child labour becomes an economic necessity for many families’ survival. Some studies show that a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour in certain countries. We now see that millions of children are at risk of being pushed into child labour, which could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of positive progress.
Furthermore, youth who are currently in the work force – or are now trying to enter the work force – will find it increasingly difficult find decent employment. A new ILO study has just emerged indicating that more than one in six young people have stopped working since the onset of the pandemic. “If their talent and energy is side-lined by a lack of opportunity or skills, it will damage all our futures and make it much more difficult to re-build a better, post-COVID economy,” says Guy Ryder, head of the ILO. This “lost generation” will face permanent exclusion from labour markets and as the world recovers from the pandemic, it’s a fear that many young people will be left behind.
A watershed moment for business
Yet, as the world is dealing with the impact of COVID-19, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to take measures that will ensure that our children and youth can thrive today and tomorrow. This is a watershed moment to consider how we can build a better future for our children. Business in particular have a responsibility to mitigate the impact that this crisis is having on children.
So given this, what can we ask business to do? What can we expect business to do for the most vulnerable – our children?
As a first step, we must ask that today, more than ever, businesses take a human rights-centered approach in response to the crisis and recovery – one that encompasses all people including the young. Businesses have a responsibility to protect workers in their supply chain and consider their impacts on members of the community in which they operate – particularly where governments have the inability to do so.
Business – a most powerful tool
We are seeing a number of companies showing up in this crisis with humanity and with a sense of their role in wider society. Whether through re-directing their efforts or resources, re-addressing their employee policies for added flexibility, or understanding how their unique strengths can contribute to society, we are seeing another side of business; a business which recognizes their unique position and ability to play an active role in minimizing the adverse impacts of corona on children.
For example, in North America, PepsiCo is increasing access for out-of-school children to food, funding medical services and providing financial support for out-of-work restaurant workers. The LEGO Foundation donated US $50 million to ensure children, particularly those most affected by the COVID-19 crisis, continue to have access to learning through play.
Olivela partnered with Save the Children & No Kid Hungry, to donate 20% of their sales to providing essential supplies for families in need.
Amazon is providing teachers and students with online STEM courses through their Amazon Future Engineer program which provides free access to online learning opportunities and computer science courses for students and teachers in the United States during the pandemic — aimed at increasing access to computer science education for children and adults from underserved and underrepresented communities.
And a coalition of Detroit’s leading businesses and philanthropic organizations announced plans to place a computer tablet with high-speed internet connectivity into the hands of every Detroit Public School student. And a factory in Indonesia continued to support young workers in their supply chain in by hosting a young worker training session via live streaming sessions in their supplier factory, as travel restrictions meant that trainers could not go to the factory in person.
Some of these corporate responses are firmly embedded in a company’s DNA, while others leverage partnerships or philanthropic initiatives that align with their corporate values. Whatever is the driving engine, we know that companies that step up, also show their stakeholders, customers, employees and investors – their ecosystem – that business has a great role to play in ensuring that children’s rights are not undermined in times of corona.
In a recent piece from the Harvard Business Review, the authors remind us that “this pandemic is turning out to be a grim but vital reminder that we human beings are here on this planet to take care of each other — and business is a way we can do that at scale. Capitalism, for all its dangers when unfettered, remains the most powerful tool we have ever invented to channel human ingenuity to meet human needs and elevate us to new heights. When the private sector pivots to serve the greater good, its reach and power is immense.”
No doubt, the business landscape will be fundamentally changed by Covid-19. Nothing provides perspective like a global crisis and as a result, companies will be judged more than ever on how they do business and the purpose they serve.
Check out our guidance documents which can assist in navigating these difficult issues:
Guide to a Child-centred Labour Policy and Corporate Programmes for Children’s Rights and Business – Guidance and Best Practice to ensure that children’s policies and programmes that are put in place are in the best interest of children
Visit the Children’s Rights and Business Atlas to assess risks in relation to access to internet services (Marketplace index), access to education (C&E index), child labour (Workplace index)
Sign our Global Child Forum Pledge for Children’s Rights and Business and make a real difference!
As the Head of Communications, Linda is responsible for bringing our work, and our message, to our stakeholders. She has long career in communications both in the private and public sector working for UN-affiliated organisations such as The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. Her public sector work is augmented by assignments in advertising, internet consulting and brand development. She holds an undergraduate degree from Barnard College, Columbia University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University. Linda joined Global Child Forum in 2015.
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