June 11, 2019
The International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide, around 218 million children aged 5 to 17 are in employment, of which around 70%, or 152 million, are victims of child labor. If this disparity is confusing, that’s because not all work done by a child automatically constitutes child labor in human rights terms. Helping around the house, assisting in family businesses, earning pocket money during time off and holidays – all those activities can actually make a positive contribution to a child’s life. By contrast, child labor is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their schooling, and exposes them to hazards or harm.
Among Western buyers and brands alike, child labor has long become a zero-tolerance issue. The term evokes images of pre-adolescent young children sewing footwear in sweatshops, laboring on cocoa plantations or risking life and limb in cobalt mines. While these worst examples are rooted in reality, the everyday face of child labor can take many more forms.
For example, in China, it is not uncommon for a parent to bring their young child to the factory with them, simply because they don’t have anyone to watch them, and no means to afford childcare services. In an ideal world, there would be a childcare center attached to the factory or the neighborhood, accessible to the local employees. As things stand, these children are found playing on the workshop floor, or helping their parent with the simpler tasks, such as attaching stickers to products.
In South Asia, there is a clear contrast between newer, larger facilities, organized with safety and social accountability in mind – and older, smaller facilities comparable to the Chinese sweatshops of 15 years ago. It’s the latter kind where a child laborer is more likely to be found, often working with hazardous chemicals with few safety precautions to speak of. These child laborers are driven to work by need, their income necessary to support the rest of their family. Fortunately, such cases are a minority: our data points out that such critical situations crop up in less than 2% of all our social audits.
As understanding of the harm of child labor grows worldwide, businesses in low-cost sourcing countries are becoming stricter about their policies on underage labor – or, in some cases, more creative. In Egypt, the Mubarak-Kohl’s Initiative aims to help young people learn technical skills to secure future employment. To that end, factories and schools are allowed to establish partnerships, in which children aged 12 and older split their education between technical school (2 days) and practical training in factory (4 days), with pay. However, on several occasions, a factory would claim participation in the initiative to justify the presence of young workers on-site, while unable to provide any evidence of actual participation: there would be no instructors employed, and children, when asked by the auditor, would reveal they never received any lessons.
This instance underscores the importance of having 3rd party auditors come in and monitor ethical compliance. Having ‘on the ground presence’ in the terms of on-site audits and inspections bridges the gap from what’s reported by the supplier and what the brand sees.
Then there is the concern that while factories working directly with Western buyers are cleaning up their act, unsavory business practices such as child labor, instead of being eliminated, are being pushed upstream, to so-called tier 2 and tier 3 vendors: suppliers of components, processing facilities, mills, farms and mines. To date, few brands can claim full visibility into all tiers of their supply chains: over the recent years, multiple surveys returned a figure around 6%. Even those few who do have full visibility find it difficult to drive meaningful change beyond the first tier of their supply chain. The truth is, the deeper a business moves into their supply chain, the less leverage it has. Lack of direct purchasing contracts with upstream suppliers means that a business can’t simply present a processing facility or a cotton farm with a code of conduct and demand compliance.
This is where negotiation, education, collaboration and presence on the ground – key drivers of improvement at any supply chain tier – become truly invaluable for any meaningful progress.
A brand that discovers child labor in its supply chain may be tempted to simply cut ties with the non-compliant supplier. While this move may help its reputation, it will create no positive change for the underage worker or for the socioeconomic situation that had driven them to work.
Ultimately, child labor is one of the most complex human right issues facing the world today, and its manifestations are as varied as the circumstances surrounding each individual or family.
Any brand that wishes to eradicate child labor from its supply chain must begin by understanding the socioeconomic reasons behind each child’s case, and collaborate with local stakeholders (such as education NGOs) to work out solutions that don’t just benefit the brand’s reputation – but help lift the child laborers and their families out of poverty.
Sébastien Breteau is the founder and CEO of QIMA, a quality control and compliance service provider that partners with brands, retailers and importers to secure and manage their global supply chain. He has more than 20 years of experience in supply chain management, founding his first sourcing company in 1997.
Founded in 2005, QIMA has become a leading player in Asia and has expanded its operations globally to 20 offices, 2,300 employees and operating in 85 countries. QIMA received the received the Best SME award from behalf of the French Chamber of Commerce in 2006, and the ‘E-Business of the Year’ award from Alibaba in 2008.