On June 12th we celebrated the International Day against Child Labour. According to the pre-COVID-19 figures, 152 million boys and girls are still trapped in child labour worldwide, with as many as 72 million doing dangerous work. The good news is that we are making progress, and fewer and fewer children are involved in child labour (94 million less since the year 2000). According to the ILO-UNICEF report “COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act“, this progress is now being jeopardized by COVID-19. Initial estimates by the United Nations indicate that an additional 66 million children will fall into extreme poverty this year as a result of the pandemic. Consequently, this report expects that more children will again have to contribute to the income of their family. Girls are particularly vulnerable. As advisers in the field of combating child labour in the global supply chains of companies, we are concerned about this. In this blog we explain what is going on, and what solutions we see.
What we are hearing from production countries
The increase in child labour has been confirmed in webinars and in various research publications. For example, the international NGO Goodweave shared experiences from the carpet industry in India and Nepal. They are genuinely concerned about children going totally unnoticed. They also see money-lenders in India taking advantage of the situation by providing ‘stranglehold’ loans to families in need. Their children have to pay them off in the form of debt slavery. Plan International Lebanon showed that the number of working children who have to work longer hours in worse conditions has been increasing since COVID-19. The NGO Verité expects greater numbers of children to be forced to work in the outermost links of different production chains. ECPAT International also shared worrying signals about increasing numbers of children being used for prostitution.
In short, COVID-19 has a serious impact and can have devastating consequences for children and their rights in the long- and medium-long term. Child labour is a complex issue involving various social, economic and political issues, such as poverty, lack of access to good education, weak enforcement of labour laws, lack of empowerment of women, and insufficient social protection for the poor. All these causes are greatly amplified by the global pandemic.
Does the economic impact of COVID-19 justify the increase of child labour?
Millions of families in emerging and developing countries work as day labourers in the informal sector (think of day workers, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, street vendors, workers from small informal factories, etc.). They, in particular, have lost their income through the global lockdown and the overwhelming effects of the pandemic. They often cannot count on unemployment benefits or food aid. Acute loss of income means that families are less able to afford basic necessities (such as food, rent) – leaving no money for health care or education for their children. Also in the formal sector, factories closing down in countless countries has led to massive layoffs and loss of income, with all the consequences for the millions of workers and their families.
As adults are at higher risk of coronavirus infection than children, pressure is mounting on children to take on a greater responsibility for family survival. With production sites that are still open looking for the cheapest labour force, children are an extremely cheap alternative.
Some countries have already announced a possible relaxation of regulations and enforcement of child labour (such as India). Proposals have been made to lower the minimum age for child labour in order to address labour shortages. According to these countries, the crisis justifies child labour.
COVID-19 reduces access to education
Governments around the world have closed down educational institutions indefinitely in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. UNESCO estimates that these closures affect more than 89% of pupils in 188 countries.
Experience shows that access to high-quality education results in a reduction of child labour. This raises fears that the closure of schools as a result of the pandemic will increase the risk of child labour. Remote education is impossible for some children, for example in poor rural communities, due to the lack of access to Internet, electricity or technology. Even after the schools reopen, many girls and boys will lose their connection to education completely, because they have to work or the family will no longer be able to afford the costs of their children attending school (school fees, supplies and uniforms).
What can we do to turn the tide?
It may seem attractive for companies to loosen the reins of responsible business now and to revert to business as usual. However, there is no more business as usual. Business partners in manufacturing countries may not survive the crisis, or may feel compelled to find new and cheaper labour. Outsourcing to the informal sector is also a real possibility to cut costs. This is precisely why, in times of crisis, it is crucial that companies sourcing from other countries fulfil their responsibility to do due diligence, in line with the OECD guidelines and UNGPs, and work together with business partners in manufacturing countries. This is how they can ensure they do not contribute to the (further) exploitation of children.
This means that internationally operating companies continue to invest in identifying and investigating supply chains and the potential risks of child labour. Major risks during this pandemic are those where child labour and child trafficking were already common before corona. The identification of these types of ‘hotspots’ will make more targeted interventions possible. A next step is to start up a dialogue with suppliers in high-risk countries to understand the challenges of the crisis and to encourage them to make child protection a priority. They can influence their suppliers and work with them and other parties to protect children. Child labour will not disappear by introducing a ban or by diverting to another supplier. It is important to address underlying root causes such as low income of parents, lack of access to education, traditions and customs, and inequality between boys and girls. A company cannot do this alone, but it can play an important role.
Legislation for due diligence on social and environmental issues is currently being explored and developed at the European level, while some European countries are already taking the initiative to introduce such laws. We welcome this development because it sets a minimum level playing field in the market, as the (voluntary) guidelines have already set out. In the Netherlands, the Child Labour Duty of Care Act is already in place, and is expected to come into force in 2022. Although the law is not yet a fact, now is the time to act. That is why we are calling on companies not to wait, but to immediately start carefully investigating the situations which have been possibly worsened by COVID-19.
It is possible
In the publication we wrote for the Dutch Fund Against Child Labour (FBK), ‘Lessons Learned – Practical steps for due diligence and remediation by companies’, we show that companies do have a role to play. The 26 companies that have participated in various projects over the past three years and received FBK funding are good examples and share their challenges. They are among the pioneers who are breaking the taboo on child labour in global supply chains.
Be part of the solution!
It is clear that a single organisation cannot solve a challenge of this complexity and scale alone. Long-term collaborations throughout the value chain are required. We need both local and international companies, civil society organisations and governments, each within its own capabilities and responsibility. COVID-19 makes this clearer than ever. We therefore appeal to companies to join forces and to honour international standards and guidelines, even in difficult times. In this way, we can tackle the root causes of child labour and contribute to inclusive, sustainable supply chains!!
Annelien van Meer (Enact Sustainable Strategies), Liesbeth Unger (Human Rights at Work) and Machteld Ooijens(Partnering for Social Impact) are advisors in the field of business and human rights. Since 2018, they have been supporting the Fund Against Child Labour (FBK) as experts. This fund supports Dutch companies that want to tackle child labour in their global supply chains. The FBK is currently open for new project proposals. For more information, go to: https://www.rvo.nl/subsidie-en-financieringswijzer/fonds-bestrijding-kinderarbeid