Child labour

A global scourge - but signs of progress

Retailers and buying companies face huge challenges in tackling child labour. When they find it, it is crucial to protect the interests of the children concerned.

Worldwide, an estimated 211 million children aged under 15 work. Child labour is widespread throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, though there are also some 2.5 million working children in developed economies. Asia has the largest number of working children, accounting for 60 per cent of the world's total.

In India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, the UN estimates that child labour contributes 20 per cent of gross national product. The government has banned child labour, but with even the lowest official estimate of children engaged in hazardous occupations standing at 12.6 million, India still has the largest number of child labourers under the age of 14 in the world.

Children can be found working in many export-oriented industries, including garments and footwear, glass manufacturing, leather tanning, stone quarries, and gem stones. Many work unacceptably long hours, often in unsafe conditions or with minimal respect for their rights.

Their labour plays a key role in supplementing their families' meagre income. One of the main reasons for the high prevalence of child labour is the burden of debt, which forces families to send their children to work. Low literacy rates further compound the problem.

(Sources: UNICEF, UN, and India 2001 Census)

Why children work

  • Lack of decent jobs for adults.
  • Large families require a variety of incomes to feed their members.
  • Agricultural jobs pay by the amount of produce picked. This encourages families to bring more children into the field to help collect farmed goods.
  • It is cheaper to pay small children because they are less likely to complain than adults. Poor families can't afford to send their children to school.
  • Many families around the world are unfamiliar with the rights of their children and deem it acceptable to send children to work.
  • Families think that school won't help their children survive
  • Migrant children don't live in one place long enough to attend school; instead they work in the fields with their parents.

The challenges of detecting child labour

A major challenge for retailers in tackling child labour is how to actually detect whether or not it exists in the first place. The reasons for this include:

  • Where child labour does exist, it tends to be in sub-contracted facilities or further down the supply chain, where it is harder for retailers to detect and where their commercial influence to improve conditions is weaker;
  • In many societies, people may not know their exact age - birth dates are not always officially recorded;
  • As employers are often aware that company auditors will be looking for child labour, they are often adept at concealing the issue - for example, asking children to go home when they know auditors are coming; and
  • Child workers themselves may also want to protect their jobs - practices such as using fake identity cards are not uncommon.

Some of the strategies employed by our members to detect child labour when carrying out workplace inspections include looking out for empty workplaces during site visits, checking production records against official numbers of workers, as well as combining on-and off-site inspections.

Responding to child labour

If a company discovers that children are involved in making its products we expect them to take swift action to protect the interests of the children and secure their urgent transition from work into good quality education. The challenges in achieving this can be significant. For example, simply demanding that the children are sent home could mean the loss of the only source of income of an entire family. Local educational provision may be poor or unaffordable - indeed, this may be one of the reasons why children are not attending school.

The company should also seek the commitment from the supplier concerned that it will end the recruitment of children and work towards full compliance with the ETI Base Code.

We recognise that some issues will take time to resolve. If a supplier fails to make adequate progress against agreed corrective action plans, or reintroduces serious worker welfare issues, the company should consider terminating business with that supplier. Conversely, where suppliers have employed children but are taking the necessary steps to address the issue, the company should continue to do business with them.

Signs of change

In late 2006, we published the findings of a major assessment of the impact of ETI members' ethical trade activities. The Sussex-based Institute of Development studies found that the incidence of employment of children and young workers at ETI member supply sites had decreased.

ETI members are also making progress on helping make workplaces safer, encouraging suppliers to pay workers their statutory entitlements, and reducing the amount of excessive overtime people have to work. However, we have yet to see substantive progress on some critical areas, including protecting workers' rights to organise themselves and bargain collectively with management.

Frequently asked questions

Is child labour ever acceptable?

Child labour is never acceptable. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour (1999) clearly distinguish between child labour, which refers to harmful forms of work which deny children opportunities to fulfil their other rights, such as education, and child work, which is unlikely to damage educational opportunities. This kind of work might include children helping out with their parents

What is a child?

The ILO and the ETI Base Code state that a child is any person younger than 18 years of age, and that 15 is the minimum age at which a child may be employed, unless local minimum age law stipulates a higher age for work or mandatory schooling, in which case the higher age shall apply. If however, local minimum age law is set at 14 years of age in accordance with developing country exceptions under ILO Convention No. 138, the lower will apply.

What does the ETI Base Code say?

Article 4 of the ETI Base Code states the following:

4. CHILD LABOUR SHALL NOT BE USED
4.1 There shall be no new recruitment of child labour.
4.2 Companies shall develop or participate in and contribute to policies and programmes which provide for the transition of any child found to be performing child labour to enable her or him to attend and remain in quality education until no longer a child; "child" and "child labour" being defined in the appendices.
4.3 Children and young persons under 18 shall not be employed at night or in hazardous conditions.
4.4 These policies and procedures shall conform to the provisions of the relevant ILO standards.

Further guidance and resources on child labour

Child labour by numbers

  • 211 million children world wide are child labourers
  • 73 million working children are less than 10 years old
  • 126 million are estimated to work in the worst forms of child labour -- one in every 12 of the world's five to 17 years olds
  • 8.4 million children are trapped in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities
  • 2.5 million children work in the developed economies
  • 22,000 children die every year in work-related accidents
  • 127 million working children are in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Nearly one third of children in Sub-Saharan Africa work

Source: International Labour Organisation (ILO)