A ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach is not enough to tackle child labour in supply chains (Save the Children and The Centre for Child Rights and Business)

Anna Triponel

May 19, 2023
Our key takeaway: We understand why tackling child labour may seem like an insurmountable feat. And why? Well, child labour does not exist in a silo - it is exacerbated by multiple crises such as the informal work economy, the lack of access to living wage/income, education, and remedy for workers, and companies’ sourcing practices. The manufacturing, mining and agricultural industries are particularly prone to specific child labour risks, which provides useful operational context for companies to consider when conducting human rights due diligence if they operate in these sectors. But what can companies do? Enter a new report by Save the Children and The Centre for Child Rights and Business. First, companies can acknowledge child labour risks internally and externally. Second, they can look at their own purchasing/sourcing practices and consider whether they’re indirectly contributing to increased child labour in their supply chains. According to Fairtrade, the price of cocoa paid to farmers dropped from 50% of the chocolate bar in 1970 to 6% today. This then has an impact on farmers and their children as their inability to earn a living wage/income means children are pressured to work and can no longer go to school. Third, companies can also work with suppliers to tackle child labour in a spirit of partnership, rather than a compliance-driven approach, and implement child rights-centred remediation systems based on positive engagement rather than ‘cut-and-run’ disengagement.

Save the Children and The Centre for Child Rights and Business released Child Rights Risks in Global Supply Chains: Why a ‘Zero Tolerance’ Approach is not Enough (2023):

  • A range of factors, including low income, informal work, and lack of access to remedy, exacerbate the risk of child labour: The report reveals how child labour in global supply chains is endemic, with 90% of the Child Rights Assessments showing either direct evidence or a very high risk of child labour. The majority of child labour cases are hidden in “deeper tiers of the supply chains and informal sectors of the economy.” Child labour exists within an ecosystem of crises, which includes: 1) “Low income and high education.” Workers and farmers in all sectors work below living wage/income, which traps them in poverty and denies children their right to education; exposing them to the risk of child labour; 2) “Lack of formalisation is a multiplier of child rights risks.” Informal work, which is particularly prevalent in agricultural industries, deprives workers of living wage/income, access to social security and health and safety protection. In this environment, the risk of child labour increases, and certain groups are disproportionately impacted. For instance, “temporary day labourers in factories are likely to work significantly longer hours for less pay” and “[f]emale temporary workers earn significantly less than any other group even though they work the longest hours in comparison”; 3) “Youth is marginalised by zero-tolerance policies.” Young workers are excluded from working in first-tier factories, which forces them to work in hidden tiers of the supply chain; this increases the risk of child labour: “When children are removed or kept away, the factories may meet the clients’ social compliance standards. But as a result, if there is no other level of remediation or support, children are then pushed down to the less regulated and less monitored informal sector to find employment.”; 4) “How child labour risks are linked to sourcing practices.” Companies’ practices can increase the risk of child labour such as “aggressive pricing structures, unrealistic turnover time, and unpredictable order volumes.”; 5) “Lack of access to remedy for child labour cases.” Companies fail to provide access to remedy because of several factors: i) a lack of awareness and transparency on child labour issues in lower tiers of the supply chain and rejecting direct responsibility or providing one-off projects when child labour is found; ii) a lack of child-centred remediation; and iii) multi-stakeholder initiatives often lack effectiveness.
  • Sector-specific child labour issues in the manufacturing, agricultural, and mining industries: The report highlights specific issues that certain industries face. For instance, a lack of access to childcare is particularly challenging for the manufacturing industry. This means that   “female migrant workers are forced to leave their children in the care of their extended families”, making them more likely to become victims of child labour exploitation. In the agricultural industry, farmers depend on their children’s contribution in family farms. This may disrupt their education, with older children exposed to more hazardous work. Underrepresented groups are disproportionately impacted: “Children of seasonal migrant workers face even higher risks of working alongside their parents, dropping out of school early, and being exposed to hazardous living conditions.” In addition, the worst forms of child labour were found in the mining industry; this was particularly true for artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Children are forced to carry out hazardous work including “working underground in polluted air and unsafe conditions.”
  • Recommendation for companies to more effectively tackle child labour issues: The report sets out three broad actions companies can take to improve their response to child labour issues within their supply chains: 1) “Increase visibility of child rights risks”, which means acknowledging child labour risks internally and externally. This includes: i) “Acknowledge that child labour is a challenge that needs to be addressed in partnership with suppliers”; ii) “Set coherent and interlinked sourcing strategies to address such risks”; and iii) “Acknowledge the importance of ASM for the livelihoods of millions of families.”; 2) “Understand and act upon the strong links between business practices and impacts on child rights.” Examples include: “Establish stronger and long-term partnerships with suppliers that allow for long-term agreements, sufficient lead times and regularity; “Address existing inequalities in supplier-buyer relationships by ensuring responsible sourcing practices and paying fair prices; “Enhance and enforce the implementation of policies and procedures that meet international standards and national laws”; and “Promote decent work for youth in the formal sector”; and 3) “Ensure child rights-centred remediation systems” based on positive engagement rather than disengagement.

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