Eradicating Child Labor in Supply Chains Requires Binding, Enforceable Standards

[This piece by CLC member Sonia Mistry of the  Solidarity Center was first published on June 10th, 2016 in Thomas Reuters Foundation News.]


He was completely covered in orange dust, from his hair to his toes. Maybe 7 or 8 years old, this little boy worked in an informal, or unregulated, mine in the southeastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was one of many children the Solidarity Center sought to remove from hazardous child labor and enroll in school.

Did he extract the minerals that ended up in my electronics? I’ll never know, and chances are that the company that made my phone doesn’t, either.

June 12 is World Day Against Child Labor, and this year’s theme, “End child labor in supply chains: It’s everyone’s business,” is relevant not simply because consumers are increasingly concerned about ethical purchasing but also because 168 million children around the world remain trapped in child labor.

The emphasis on supply chains provides an opportunity for companies to highlight their codes of conduct and efforts to monitor how their products are made. Consumers do not want to buy products made by children or exploited workers, and more businesses want to avoid the stain on their reputations. Company codes of conduct prohibit child labor and lay out other standards that businesses expect their suppliers to meet. But what happens when these standards are violated? Maybe a business cuts its ties with offending suppliers. Maybe nothing. And that is the point. Codes of conduct are voluntary, with little to no enforceability. External audits happen only periodically and cannot verify the absence of child labor or other abuses after auditors leave.

Eradicating child labor is not charity or good public relations. Child labor is a violation of human rights. It is a symptom of the confluence of other entrenched issues, like poverty, inequality, a lack of decent work for adults, poor governance and the absence of adequate social protections or policies that reduce vulnerability to risks like unemployment or illness. Children work because of these issues, and their exploitation perpetuates the cycle.

The only truly sustainable and meaningful alternatives to voluntary codes of conduct are binding and enforceable standards that employers and governments must abide by and which uphold the labor standards enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conventions, like the prohibition on child labor and the right of workers to form or join unions. Just this week, representatives of governments, businesses and workers gathered at an ILO meeting to discuss what will hopefully result in a new convention on supply chain accountability.

Unions are key partners in eradicating child labor through the promotion of decent work for adults and advocacy for improved government policies. Workers are the best workplace monitors, capable of identifying violations, including child and forced labor. Through collective bargaining, unions have engaged employers to address many of the root causes of child labor, including inadequate access to education, low wages and excessively high production quotas.

On this World Day Against Child Labor, I offer the following solutions for stakeholders seeking to eradicate child labor in supply chains:

Businesses—Work with unions and independent workers’ organizations to develop binding and enforceable standards, such as through collective bargaining agreements. Precedent for other forms of enforceable agreements has also been set in the garment industry, for example, where clothing brands and unions signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

Governments—Ensure that all workers, including those in informal sectors, are covered by labor law protections that adhere to international standards. Enforce those laws to promote accountability.

Consumers—Contact companies and government officials to advocate for the actions noted above. When making purchases, look for the union label because it means workers had a role to play in upholding standards in their part of the supply chain.

In the Congo, where government regulation was severely lacking and companies did not trace informally mined minerals that ended up in their supply chains, it was the teachers union that played a key role in helping thousands of children, like the little boy I met, gain access to education. By advocating for regular payment of wages so that teachers did not have to charge school fees to survive and parents could afford to keep their children in class, the union chose to take on one of the drivers of child labor rather than simply seek a stopgap.

Sonia Mistry is a senior program officer for Asia at the Solidarity Center. This week, she spoke on a panel at a joint UNICEF and ILO discussion in New York on child labor in supply chains. The Solidarity Center works to promote decent work and a strong labor movement capable of upholding worker rights, which helps combat child labor at its root causes.

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.