Child labour is “widespread” and “almost endemic” in global supply chains, according to damning research by Save the Children Germany and The Centre for Child Rights and Business.
The study – "Child Rights Risks in Global Supply Chains: Why a ‘Zero Tolerance’ Approach is not Enough" – evaluated 20 child rights risk assessments in manufacturing, agriculture and mining industries in Ethiopia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It found that despite claims of a “zero-tolerance” approach by companies measured, child labour occurred in half of the companies looked at.
Moreover, eight of the remaining 10 assessments showed a “very high risk of child labour. The worst cases were found in mining, particularly artisanal and small-scale mining.
But the report criticised reporting mechanisms used by all companies assessed, claiming they only led to the “redistribution” of child labour, not its elimination.
It said: “Most companies’ current monitoring mechanisms contribute little to the reduction of child labour but shift it to the invisible parts of the supply chains. In cases where child labour is reported, few companies have systems in place to allow the child to have access to remedy.”
It added: “A simple ‘zero tolerance’ approach does little to carry out meaningful conversations with suppliers and producers about challenges on the ground.”
The report claimed compliance and risk-based approaches typically came in the form of minimum standards, “no child labour” contract clauses and adopting industry pledges or certifications.
But it added that steps taken by firms to monitor child labour were merely “redistributing” the issues, meaning “children are often exposed to even greater risks of hazardous child labour.” The report said this so-called “push-down effect”, are likely to mean working conditions deteriorate, and leave workers less protected.
According to Save the Children Germany, child labour risks are viewed by firms as a risk for the company in reputational and compliance damage, rather than it being seen as a risk for children.
Consequently, it said, measures taken by firms focus on minimising potential negative impact on the company, rather than on imposing consequences or soliciting improvement plans from the supplier.
Save the Children Germany’s lead of sustainable supply chains, Anne Reiner, said: “The clothes we wear, the cell phones we use and the food we eat may have been produced at the expense of children. This thought should trouble us all.”
She added: "The study shows that many of the workers who make everything from coffee to batteries for our daily use, can barely cover their children's education with their wages, forcing their children to work."
The report recommended companies increase their supply chain visibility to tackle child labour issues, understand and act upon the links between business practices on child rights, and ensure children are at the heart of remediation systems rather than business and reputational motivations.
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