Last week was World Day Against Child Labour, and the UN warned that children in conflict zones are particularly vulnerable to becoming child labourers. UNICEF defines child labour as children who are “either too young to work or are involved in hazardous activities that may compromise their physical, mental, social or educational development.” The Director-General of the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, stated “around the world, there are still 168 million children in child labour. Eighty-five million of them are engaged in hazardous work.” No child should be forced to work and often it is not just the work, but the fact that they are missing out on education and opportunities. One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2025 is the elimination of child labour. This is being disrupted by continuous conflict, with Ryder suggesting that the refugee crisis has become a driver of child labour.
The Human Rights Watch has also identified the connection between conflict and child labour. They report that approximately 250 million children live in areas of armed conflict. They also state that in Afghanistan, at least a quarter of children aged 5 to 14, work to support their families. This is because of the ongoing impact of years of war which has fuelled poverty. Often child labourers arise from these situations of extreme need, however, as the Human Rights Watch has suggested, governments need to do more to support these children since this is no excuse for child labour. When children are involved in child labour they lose opportunities for a better life and often the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
Though there is awareness of the issue, little is being done to solve it. Studies are conducted and agreements signed, but often the “extreme circumstances” faced by children in conflict areas or natural disasters mean that they become a lower priority. However, the Human Rights Watch has reported that the Netherlands is stepping up to the challenge, introducing plans for a law that would require companies to examine whether child labour was being used in their supply chains. This move could lead the way for other countries. The importance of this law is that it requires companies to go beyond guaranteeing the practices in its factories onshore, and ensuring that throughout the chain of production there is no suspicion of child labourers. Often these domestic laws are required for full compliance, as it is easy for states to turn a blind eye to the situation in other countries, especially when it reduces their costs.
Children in conflict areas or natural disasters are often disregarded. In the chaos of their environment, they are exploited. It will take active involvement from external states to stop the exploitation. Their extreme circumstances make it appear as though there is no alternative. However, it is clear that turning children into labourers is not a solution. As mentioned above this can perpetuate the cycle of poverty. If there were checks from every multinational and state on the activities throughout the supply chains then this exploitation would not be able to occur. In areas where child labour is common, it is because there is a market for this cheap labour. If the demand can be eliminated then child labour can also be eliminated.
The problem could be solved through a two-fold approach. Firstly, laws, like the proposed Dutch law, need to be implemented. These will engage with the public interest that supports an end to child labour. Particularly, through raising awareness that this is occurring with products and companies that people might be using every day. Many ordinary citizens may be aware of the problem but unsure how they can obtain information as to whether a company is compliant with checking whether child labour is involved in the production of their goods. This could be similar to the move to brand some goods as “fair trade”, or eggs as “free range.” Perhaps a similar system could be implemented with compliance related gradings on items to show that they do not use child labour. There have been some indications that systems like this might gain traction, such as recent fashion grading systems that reflect the treatment of the workers who produce that garment. If the UN Sustainable Development Goal is for an elimination of child labour by 2025, a system like this will be essential so that consumers can help drive the move to protect children from harsh labour. Consumers may be swayed by low prices, however, the fair trade movement has proven that many people care deeply about the well-being of the people behind the products they use. In the case of child labour, it is highly emotive as children are perceived as vulnerable and innocent and most people would agree that they should be focused on their childhood and not being a provider for their families. The grading system must be widely available, however, as the limitation of the clothing grading system can be seen through annual reports which are quickly forgotten. Therefore, states with greater means need to be aware and enforce regulations around the use of child labour. If states can introduce guidelines or gradings that are publicly available, they will provide their citizens with the information needed to make informed decisions about the products and companies they support. This action can lead to changes in practices if companies that do not comply with regulations are rejected by the public.
This raises the second element to ensure the protection of children from forced labour: states need to be responsible and active participants in the welfare of their citizens. If states can provide basic needs for their citizens, then there would be no need for children to enter into dangerous or forced work in order to survive. What drives many children, especially in conflict and natural disaster areas, is the need to support the family or themselves when families are separated, lose jobs, or lose health. These are not considerations a child should have to face. Furthermore, though there is a strong programme aiming to get all children through education, this is not always enforced. It is sometimes interpreted as being a requirement to provide schooling, not to ensure children go. These factors can severely limit the ability for children to develop and therefore limits their futures. Often in the extreme situations mentioned above, it would be hard for a government to provide for the people. But in this case, there are two central considerations. One is that there is a long-term benefit in keeping children in schools and out of forced work so that they can provide for themselves later. Secondly, international aid groups could play a role, by making the safety and security of children a priority. This includes their mental and developmental security. It will be important that the focus is not purely on getting adults into jobs to provide for their families but also so that their children can continue to learn and grow without the pressures of providing for the family. Many children in the situations above may be orphaned and they should also be provided for, not through older siblings having to work and raise children when they are only children themselves.
Child labour should have been eliminated long ago. It is unconscionable to condone this practice and it is promising to see a firm goal being set by the UN. However, it is still too easy for companies and states to get away with using child labour, knowingly or unknowingly, through checks that do not extend beyond direct contracts. Law, similar to that proposed by the Netherlands, shows the way forward to ensuring that all child labour practices down the line of production can be identified and stopped. A local level grading system may be a useful tool in getting the public to show their condemnation of the practice and help to generate change through consumer action. As basic economics show, suppliers will not provide where there is no demand.