Tackling the Myths Around Child Labour

While the movement to eradicate child labour has gained significant pace, there is still a lot of ground to be covered and work to be done by companies and investors in conjunction with trade unions and NGOs, writes CSR researcher Martijn Boersma from Catalyst Australia.

In its latest report, Catalyst Australia examines the efforts and collaboration of global unions, NGOs, companies, and investors in dealing with child labour in global supply chains.

Extensive interviews highlighted a number of myths and misunderstandings that limit public perception of the issue and undermine the fight against child labour including:

Myth 1: Child labour is only an issue for developing countries, not for Australia and other developed countries.

Over half of Australia’s imported goods come from the Asia-Pacific region, an area with 78 million child labourers. As such, child labour can affect producers and consumers across the entire economic spectrum, while demands for low cost goods can turn suppliers towards exploitative practices and use of child labour.

Myth 2: Global initiatives and national legislation have almost entirely made child labour a thing of the past.

While it has been estimated that the number of child labourers has declined by 33 percent since 2000, 168 million children continue to be exploited. Although global conventions are in place, their existence does not guarantee local take-up, nor does the existence of national child labour laws mean they are enforced.

Myth 3: Child labour only occurs in isolated industries and geographical regions.

59 percent of child labour is found in the agricultural sector. Other infamous industries are the manufacturing and materials industry. It is clear however that any unskilled labour can involve the use of children. Furthermore, over half of the world’s imports are intermediate goods, used as inputs in the production of other goods, sourced from and intricately connecting different parts of the globe.

Myth 4: The distinction between children working in industrial or in smaller settings is often mistaken and misused.

A frequent misconception is that children in agriculture are largely working to support the family farm. This leads to the trivialisation of child labour and can implicitly justify children working. It also undermines the rights of children to a childhood and education. As one participant put it: “…it’s nice for a young person to have a job, but child labour is an abuse, it is a human rights abuse.”

Myth 5: Self-regulatory standards or donations to charities are effective in offsetting the impact of child labour.

CSR disclosures and voluntary labour and human rights initiatives are not regarded to be driving change, but as public relations tools for companies. They can however be a force for good when Governments are incapable or unwilling to act. In addition, there is no equivalent to buying carbon offsets in human rights: philanthropic good deeds do not compensate for infringing on human rights.

While the movement to eradicate child labour has gained significant pace, there is still a lot of ground to be covered. Most importantly, worker organisation is crucial, as child labour occurs less where there are representative trade unions.

Companies and investors too can play an emancipatory role. It is important that these parties avoid tackling the issue alone, and instead flag concerns, consult stakeholders, and draw on remediation and prevention programs from trade unions and NGOs.

There is a need to shift from a standards-based approach to child labour towards a compliance-based approach, and expand the current narrow definition of risk to include risks of human rights abuses.

It is encouraging to see that Australia’s responsible investment industry is growing, as the partnership between shareholders and companies is unique and free of the tension that exists between NGOs and companies. However, the level of sophistication among funds varies, and the Catalyst research highlights a number of gaps and future considerations in addressing child labour.

Most notably, investors focus on human rights without full understanding any initiatives abroad, or trade union and NGO engagement. There is no history of investors actively and publicly engaging with companies on child labour issues, there is little evidence of Australian investors applying responsible investment strategies regarding child labour, and investors often react to ethical issues rather than proactively dealing with them.

About the author: Martijn Boersma is a Researcher at Catalyst Australia, a policy institute and think tank, which works closely with trade unions, non-governmental organisations and academics to promote policy solutions for around pressing social and economic issues.

Article originally published by ProBono Australia

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