It’s 2017. We nearly have flying cars. Artificial minds are beating people at very difficult games, more and more previously incurable diseases are being treated, yet hundreds of millions of children are victims of child labour. How on Earth is this still a massive problem and what can be done?

How can it be that children are still working to make the products we know and love?

Child labour, as defined by the UN, involves “work for which the child is either too young (work done below the required minimum age) or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is unacceptable for children and is prohibited”.

The numbers are shocking. There are 218 million children, aged five to 17 years, working. Of these, almost half of them (152 million) are victims of child labour. And half of these (73 million) are carrying out hazardous work in mines, agricultural fields and factories.

While child labour is most common across the Asia and Pacific region, it is a problem that stretches far and wide – and not just geographically, tainting a plethora of industries. While agriculture remains by far the most guilty of sectors making use of children in the fields (accounting for 71 per cent of child labour victims), the problem is also rife across the service (17 per cent) and manufacturing (12 per cent) sectors, particularly in the mining and fashion industry.

A raft of child labour laws have helped to improve the situation. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the number of children working fell by 30 per cent between 2000 and 2012. But with 11 per cent of the world’s children in a situation that deprives them of their right to go to school without interference from work – work that often involves producing many of the products and foods that we know and love – it’s a thorny issue that puts many of the world’s biggest brands at serious risk.

The cocoa fields of West Africa have received the majority of NGO attention and journalistic investigation, yet the problem of child labour persists, and is in fact getting worse. A fifth of all global child labourers are working in agriculture across Africa and around half of these are victims of what is known as the ‘worst form of child labour’ – a thing that is sufficiently bad and prevalent that it’s been given an acronym: “WFCL”.

WCFL kids are asked to carry loads too heavy for their bones and muscles, they’re told to use machetes to clear forests, or made to work with dangerous chemicals. In the Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest producer of cocoa, the number of WFCL victims has jumped 46 per cent since 2009.

How on Earth is this happening? Child labour is a complex issue to say the least, not least because in many countries, asking children to work is not considered to be an abuse on human rights. Sometimes, putting children to work is argued to be a part of cultural legacies that would see children help out on the family farm where they might learn valuable agricultural skills.

The fashion industry is another at the mercy of continuously squeezed profits, commonly turning to cheap child labour to ease the pressure. In the cotton sector, farmers often prefer to hire children because their small fingers will not damage the crop. In countries like India and Bangladesh, many girls are willing to work for low wages, with some workers as young as 15 dominating yarns and spinning mills.

Then there’s batteries. Around ten per cent of the cobalt produced and used by some of the biggest technology and mining companies relies on child labour and worker exploitation, according to Amnesty International which largely investigated the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Though most cobalt is produced by the major industrial companies – many of which are under scrutiny to address their social and environmental performance – a large amount still comes from rudimentary operations where it is extracted by hand and mixed into the main supply chain before being used by major technology firms. Up to 150,000 so-called ‘artisanal’ miners currently operate in the DRC, employing around 40,000 children, according to Unicef.

So, what can be done to finally eradicate such a draconian form of labour? Well, encouraging more transparency from brands is going to be crucial. Companies are being urged to better understand which countries, regions and sectors are most at risk of child labour violations – and to respond with policies and procedures that are communicated internally to the relevant teams, particularly buyers of commodities such as cobalt or cocoa.

Getting closer to suppliers is key too, to ensure they are aware of minimum age provisions of national labour laws, as well as regulations and international standards and conventions. Should children below the legal working age be found in the workplace, suppliers should be made to take measures to remove them from work and help them to seek viable alternatives, as well as access to schooling.

A number of international and regional conventions have also focused on dealing with WFCL cases. Establishing a minimum age of work, along with other social reforms, can aid in legislating against child abuse. For example, the Harkin–Engel Protocol, a global deal agreed in the aftermath of the airing of a 2000 BBC documentary on the cocoa industry and its apparent lack of action in dealing with the issue, has seen cocoa-buyers and governments getting tougher.

Rooted in poverty, and a lack of decent alternatives in many parts of a rapidly changing and still largely unequal world – child labour will not easily be eliminated by the actions and activities of one single company or NGO alone. This past ten years has thankfully seen the industries most guilty of child labour forced out of ignorance and denial. But like most remaining issues the world faces, is no ‘one solution’. Bigger and bolder commitments from businesses, as well as sector-wide commitments to more responsible sourcing, can only be seen as a first step.


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