Mike Dottridge, the lead author of our latest Base Code guidance on child labour explains why it is (particularly its worst forms) a business-critical issue. He also explains why addressing child labour is essential for the credibility and legitimacy of a business in the eyes of its stakeholders in the UK ... and elsewhere.
The ILO estimated in 2013 that more than 10% of the world’s children were engaged in child labour. That’s 168 million children. And more than half of those are engaged in hazardous work.
Most child workers are in Asia, particularly South Asia. However, the proportion of children who work rather than attending school is high in many parts of Africa too (approximately one-third of all children in West Africa).
The overwhelming majority of child labourers (59%) are reported by the ILO to work in agriculture, mainly on their parents’ farms, but many also produce commercial crops such as cocoa and cotton.
The patterns and reasons that children work vary from place to place, so a responsible company that plans to purchase products in a particular location should find out what patterns are reported locally. The guidance suggests whom to consult.
Base Code guidance
The guidance provides advice to companies on what they can and should do to identify, manage, mitigate and prevent child labour.
Essentially, it says that children below the internationally-recognised minimum age of 15 should not be working in supply chains. Nor should any young person below the age of 18 be working in what are termed “the worst forms of child labour”. This includes work that is hazardous, undertaken at night, involves long hours or causes harm to the health, safety or morals of a child, as well as work that could be categorised as forced labour or ‘modern-day slavery’, such as bonded labour.
The guidance is in three sections:
- The first section contains basic information about child labour, the challenges for companies and the minimum standards set by the ETI Base Code.
- The second section describes the steps involved in applying a due diligence approach and contains advice on what companies can do to identify child labour, manage situations where child labour is found, and how to prevent it from occurring in their supply chains.
- The final section contains definitions, information on international standards, and various references and resources.
It's important to note that the guidance recognises that each situation is different and that no ‘one size fits all’ approach is possible.
So, we cite examples and case studies aimed at helping companies learn from experience to help strengthen their own responses. As many other specialist organisations have produced helpful guidance, there are references to these in the annexe.
The due diligence process
The guidance provides advice on the four steps of the due diligence process.
STEP 1 involves assessing the actual and potential risk of child labour;
STEP 2 involves identifying corporate leverage and responsibility, decision-making and actions needed;
STEP 3 involves the mitigation of risk and remediation for child workers in cases where the ETI Base Code is being violated;
STEP 4 involves monitoring implementation and impact, ensuring that the best interests of children are taken into consideration, reviewing and reporting.
The ETI Base Code requires companies to “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”.
Businesses need to balance the importance of taking prompt action that protects a child against the risk of knee-jerk inappropriate actions, such as dismissing child workers, or forbidding the employment of any young workers below 18 or prohibiting home-based work. The guidance offers advice on appropriate steps.
There are numerous challenges to confront.
Major international businesses along with retailers and brands that interface directly with consumers are unlikely to encounter either child labour or children working in their own operations.
However, suppliers, manufacturers, farmers and producers in the supply chains of ETI members are more likely to face the direct risk of child labour, both the challenge of ensuring that children below the minimum age for employment are not working, and that older children, such as those aged 16 and 17, are working in acceptable conditions.
So, responsible companies must consider what level of risk assessment is needed, possibly through a detailed due diligence exercise involving local experts and children themselves. They need to consider to what extent they can rely on audits or whether they need to invest in their supplier’s capacity and systems to ensure that they are capable of tackling child labour.
The main challenge comes when a business retailing in the UK or other industrialised countries seeks to source products in places where child labour is still common, albeit contrary to both national law and international standards.
At the level of the second or third tier of suppliers, you may encounter a sort of conspiracy of local actors, who condone children working and want to pull the wool over the eyes of foreign buyers. This is particularly likely in areas where children much younger than 15 are routinely found working full-time.
The guidance offers various tips on challenges such as verifying a young worker’s age and assessing the situation of children found “helping their parents” or working on a family farm that produces a commercial crop.
And, finally … it also contains advice on promoting good practice to ensure that a child’s best interests are a primary consideration in actions affecting them. Very importantly, it shows how to promote respect for a range of workers’ rights that are likely to have the effect of discouraging child labour.