While for many children, August is a time to enjoy vacation in the few weeks left before school starts, millions of children worldwide are instead concerned with working and generating extra income to support their families. According to global estimates, approximately 165 million children were in child labor in 2020. That number has only worsened since the start of the pandemic. For SAI and many other organizations, this global context gave June, in which World Day Against Child Labor is recognized, a greater urgency and importance than previous years. Describing the current atmosphere, Maripina Menéndez, CEO of Save the Children Mexico and President of EL Centro de Derechos de la Niñez y Empresas (El Centro), remarked: “In these post-pandemic scenarios worldwide, child labor is growing for the first time in 16 years. Preventing and eradicating child labor implies a great cultural, social, and economic challenge.”
Understanding Root Causes
While the world made great progress in reducing child labor from the 1990s to mid-2010s, the number of working children has actually increased since 2016—up 6.5 million by early 2020. At that time, UNICEF projected that an additional nine million children could be pushed into child labor by the pandemic by 2022. These increases indicate that strategies to reduce child labor in the early 21st century did not address underlying causes. At a panel discussion hosted by Save the Children Mexico and El Centro, SAI’s President & CEO, Jane Hwang joined co-panelists in discussing those root causes, among which are a lack of support for families, inadequate educational support and opportunity, and insufficient wages. “We often see that the income, the wages, the prices, are pushing children into child labor because the families cannot survive on the parent’s income,” noted Ines Kaempfer, CEO of The Centre for Child Rights and Business.
Pandemic shutdowns exacerbated that trend by disrupting many financial and communal support systems, but many of the underlying issues existed long before the pandemic. For example, in Bangladesh, rates of child labor increased greatly as children from poor rural areas migrated to cities for work to support their families—demonstrating a lack of opportunity in rural areas and lack of social supports in urban areas.
Now that the pandemic has eased and people are resuming normal activities, some children have still not returned to school because buildings and roads are now in a dangerous state of disrepair. While families want children to go to school, a lack of infrastructure, investment, and support make it nearly impossible. “This is still an important challenge for Latin America as a region… most child labor is concentrated primarily in agriculture, therefore, also within the framework of the family itself… These are the characteristics that make up child labor in Latin America,” observed Maria Gloria Barreiro, Executive Director of Desarrollo y Autogestión (DYA).
Addressing the Root Causes
Because child labor has numerous root causes, it requires a diversity of solutions that engage stakeholders across private and public sectors, civil society, and communities. During the event, panelists discussed the need for changes to fundamental business models, for our societies to start thinking of suppliers and workers as human capital, rather than a cost. They discussed the need for companies to invest in their people as a competitive advantage and to engage directly with communities and community-based organizations, for governments to incentivize and enforce strong due diligence on child labor and invest in needed social supports, and for communities to organize, advocate, and take action where they can.
This complexity, however, does not mean companies cannot or should not work to make progress on their own.
“We’ve seen that companies can both be multipliers of child labor risk… for example, if [they] don’t pay sufficient wages in [their] supply chains, then [they] become multipliers of poverty… but, on the other hand, companies can also become mitigators. For example, if they do a good job on child labor remediation. Or, they can become enablers of child rights if they proactively make a difference.”Ines Kaempfer, CEO of The Centre for Child Rights and Business
In our work, SAI emphasizes three approaches companies can take to address the root causes of child labor in their operations and supply chains:
- Work towards paying at least a living wage. Poverty and a lack of financial security are among the most important drivers for child labor, so committing and taking action to pay at least a living wage for all employees across the supply chain is one of the most impactful steps a company can take. A living wage is a wage sufficient for the worker and their family to afford a decent standard of living, including food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, other essential needs, and a cushion for unexpected events. When wages are sufficient to meet families’ basic needs, children are far less likely to end up in child labor. Living wages are also increasingly becoming the minimum requirement for sustainability standards and are even being considered in certain countries as a legislative requirement, including in the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.
There are a growing number of resources available to help companies develop a living wage commitment and implement it. SAI co-authored a guide to some of these resources.
- Invest in meaningful stakeholder engagement. Companies should engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including government, workers, civil society organizations, and local communities to understand the unique challenges driving child labor in their areas of operation and supply chain. These groups can help identify possible risks—such as inadequate schools or childcare, cultural and economic situations that incentivize working children, or lack of opportunity after school—and possible solutions. In Palma Futuro, SAI helped form and facilitate Community Circles to bridge the gap between communities and palm oil companies. Groups of community members were able to identify underlying issues that lead to child labor, brainstorm solutions to those challenges, and develop concrete actions to address them, including actions the communities can take independently and some that are possible with support from nearby palm oil companies
- Adopt a Management Systems approach. If there is a secret ingredient for better performance on any labor issue, it is a systems-based approach to prevention, eradication, and remediation. Management systems are key for social compliance issues because they embed responsible practices in daily business operations and support continuous improvement.
“Our work is often helping bigger companies do due diligence and develop management systems for not just their own operations, but… to cascade it and make it come alive in terms of actions within a company,” Jane noted. “Some of the most interesting work we’re doing with companies on management systems is working with their suppliers to map their sourcing practices and production capacity, and looking ahead to see how they can have more cooperation between buyers and suppliers.”
Learn more about our work on child labor: SAI is working with Save the Children Mexico and El Centro to address child labor, forced labor, and unacceptable conditions of work in Mexico’s tomato and chile pepper sectors and with The Centre to address similar issues in the garment and palm oil sectors in Malaysia. Both projects are funded by USDOL. We also wrote about some child labor learnings in a recent blog post: Combatting Child Labor in the COVID Era with Palma Futuro.
August 8, 2022: A previous version of this article made incorrect claims about research from the Palma Futuro project. To avoid confusion, this sentence has been removed. We have also corrected the spelling of Maripina Menéndez and her title.