7 Things Companies Can Do to Fight Child Labor


Young girls in Ethiopia engaged in child labor sort out good coffee beans from poor ones in a plant.

Young girls in Ethiopia sort out good coffee beans in a plant. Credit: Abbas/Magnum Photos for MFA Italy

June 12 is World Day Against Child Labor. It is a day to reflect on the 168 million children who work instead of going to school – and to focus on solutions. It’s everyone’s business to ensure that the goods we produce and consume are not made at the expense of anyone’s childhood. We’ve already written about what you can do to help end child labor. Now, we want to highlight a few things companies can do to keep child labor out of their supply chains.

1. Engage consumers.

Why it’s important: The evidence is clear: the socially conscious consumer is a growing global phenomenon. In fact, a recent study found that two-thirds of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for goods that are produced responsibly. Companies that can show consumers their goods were made without child labor can tap into this growing demand.

How it can work: NGO GoodWeave International has developed an innovative approach to tackling the problem of child labor in carpet weaving with a child labor-free label for rugs. GoodWeave inspects workshops in participating importers’ supply chains to ensure they adhere to a no-child-labor standard and remediate any violations. Licensing fees help sustain the program of monitoring, inspections and social services for weavers. Suppliers and retailers see the value in the label. Last fall, Target announced a partnership with GoodWeave to sell the child-labor-free rugs in its stores. GoodWeave is now expanding the program to other sectors – from brick kilns in Nepal to apparel factories in India. A department-funded project is helping them extend it to home-based carpet production in Afghanistan.

2. Support worker voice.

Why it’s important:  Listening to workers is one of the most effective ways a company can monitor its supply chains.  Workers and the unions that represent them can bring issues to a company’s attention much more quickly than an outside auditor.  By respecting freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, companies can help ensure that they are eliminating – and not enabling – abusive forms of labor in their supply chains.

How it can work:  The Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia used its collective bargaining agreement to transform a rubber plantation owned by the Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Co. since 1926. For years, child labor and other worker rights violations ran rampant. Workers were often forced to carry buckets of latex weighing a total of 150 pounds on either end of a stick on their backs for miles.  Workers also suffered from unreasonably high production quotas and low wages and, as a result, their children worked alongside them in order to survive. After a long struggle to gain recognition, the workers signed collective bargaining agreements that improved work conditions by lowering production quotas, raising salaries and benefits, and changing burdensome practices. The union received the U.S. Department of Labor’s Iqbal Masih Award in 2011 for their efforts to end child labor. A DOL-funded project now works with them to further improve polices and build the capacity of the private sector and communities surrounding the plantation.

3. Be transparent.

Why it’s important:  Many companies have some form of social auditing in place, which includes auditing for child labor.  However, most of them keep the results of these audits confidential.  A growing number of consumers, shareholder groups and NGOs are making the case for public disclosure of audit reports. Even when these reports show violations of a company’s code of conduct, disclosure can be a powerful demonstration of a company’s commitment to making things right.

How it can work: One example is the Fair Labor Association’s “Tracking Charts.” To be members of the FLA, companies agree to independent, external assessments of working conditions in the factories that supply them. The FLA publishes complete data from every audit carried out on the factories, as well as the actions taken by FLA-affiliated companies to address the findings.  Another example is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Company signatories have made a firm commitment to publicly disclose all factories, inspection reports and corrective action plans. To date, accord member H&M, as well as non-member Levi Strauss and Co., have publicly disclosed the names and addresses of their suppliers.

4. Practice due diligence.

Why it’s important: Risk and impact assessments help companies “see” their supply chains better. Where might they be contributing to or causing labor rights abuses? Where are the risks of such abuses occurring greatest?  Answering these questions allows companies to immediately take steps to tackle existing problems. It also helps them prevent potential future violations. These assessments are integral to a responsible due diligence process. They are an essential tool for companies seeking sustainability in their supply chains.

How it can work:  Coca-Cola has committed to publishing third-party due diligence studies of its 28 top sugar-sourcing countries by 2020. The studies look at risks and impact at the farm level across Coca Cola’s sugar supply chain – on issues of child labor, forced labor and land rights. Each study relies on extensive input and discussion with mills, key suppliers, bottling partners, communities, civil society organizations and other partners. Coca-Cola has published the first five studies in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And the company is using these reports as tools for engagement with stakeholders. You can view their due diligence checklist here.

5. Put in place meaningful grievance mechanisms.

Why it’s important:  Grievance mechanisms allow workers to voice their concerns with their employers without fear of retaliation.  Companies should ensure that safe, accessible channels are available to all workers to lodge complaints about any issue related to their code of conduct.  Ideally, multiple channels should be available, such as through trade unions, through supervisors, directly through management, or directly to the company.  Standard procedures should also be in place for handling and resolving complaints to protect workers from reprisal and to notify both workers and other affected stakeholders of the outcome of the grievance.

How it can work:  International framework agreements are negotiated between multinational enterprises and global union federations to ensure companies respect core labor rights and decent working conditions.  The first IFA was signed in 1988 by the French food company BSN (renamed Danone in 1994) and the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations.  Initially intended to promote coordination on issues including skills training, gender equity, and trade union rights, the agreement covers all global operations, which as of 2008 encompassed about 100,000 employees worldwide. The agreement was later expanded to implement a safe, accessible whistle blowing system called DIALERT.  Information about DIALERT is displayed in all subsidiaries and factories and can be accessed by all employees and suppliers.  A fax, phone, and internet line is available in seven languages and allows anyone to report any practices violating the company’s code of conduct.

6. Provide children with alternatives to work.

Why it’s important:  If a company identifies child labor in its supply chain, it has a responsibility to ensure the children’s education and well-being.  Besides removing children from work in hazardous or illegal conditions, companies can take other steps to provide children with alternatives to work that endangers their safety or jeopardizes their education.  Companies can eliminate dangerous work from the child’s job, help a child identify other safe income-earning opportunities, monitor the child’s work activities and schedule; and link the child to educational and developmental opportunities provided by the government and NGOs.

How it can work:  Isidro León-York owns a coffee farm in Nicaragua that employs over 760 workers.  He provides his workers and their families with decent wages, food, and health care and uses a portion of his farm's profits to fund a school for his workers’ children.  Beyond his own farm, Mr. León-York advocates to reduce child labor in Nicaragua's coffee sector by supporting a network of growers and seeking commitments from other farm owners to eliminate the use of child labor in the sector.  He is also helping expand a public-private partnership called Educational Bridges, which ensures that the children of coffee workers are in school and prevents child labor during harvest season.  In 2013, Mr. León-York was the first recipient from the private sector to win U.S. Department of Labor’s Iqbal Masih Award.

7. Link with other supplier incentives.

Why it’s important:  Companies engage directly with upstream suppliers for a variety of reasons, from materials costs to quality control.  Leadership companies have found ways to integrate child labor and other human rights issues into other dealings with suppliers, making them complementary and mutually-reinforcing.

How it can work:  To increase productivity on West African cocoa farms, Mars’ Vision for Change program provides training to farmers on good agricultural practices. It also gives them access to fertilizer and superior planting materials.  At the same time, the program raises farmers’ awareness about child labor and the critically important role education plays in shaping the future. This approach aims to empower communities to address the challenges they must meet in order to thrive.

To learn about more ways companies can work to eliminate child labor, please see our child labor and forced labor toolkit.

Rachel Rigby is the deputy chief of the research & policy division in the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking within the department's Bureau of International Labor Affairs.


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