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What are we doing wrong on child labour? - Ten ways for business to get it right

19 March 2019

Embode is proud to have produced ‘Child Labour Policy: An Integrated Approach’ for Global Child Forum. This blog piece is written by Aarti Kapoor (Director, Embode) and Nina Vollmer (Research Manager, Global Child Forum) and reposted.

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 to support accountability for eradicating child labour. These approaches can be summarised in three main points for companies to consider:

·       Firstly, it is fundamental that companies take a child-centred perspective and be conscious that decisions should be made with the best interests of children in mind. Children’s rights are distinct from other human rights, because children rely on the responsibility of their communities, governments and industries to protect them.

·       Secondly, once organisational policies are in place, it’s essential to take measures to monitor progressive compliance of their implementation.

·       Thirdly, it’s imperative to understand the limits of compliance processes in actually ensuring that standards are adopted and maintained.

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 of 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 commerical 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 essesnce, the most forward thinking businesses are transforming the purpose of sustainable business to not only ensure no harm to children, but that children derive valued as integral stakeholders.