Child Labour and Trafficking for Forced Labour in Global Supply Chains – Current Understanding and Opportunities for Actions1
Text: Beate Andrees, International Labour Organization (ILO)
Beate Andrees summarises results and insights from the Alliance 8.7 Report on child labour and forced labour in global supply chains and points to opportunities for action by the EU and its Member States.
The growing integration of the global economy through trade and private investments has created unprecedented growth in production and employment, enabled the transfer of new technologies and stimulated innovation in many parts of the world. Small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers and small producers are now connected to global markets through often complex supply chains.
This economic integration does not come without risks. In many countries, particularly in countries with a large informal and rural economy, violations of fundamental principles and rights have been widely documented. These violations encompass hazardous or other forms of child labour, forced labour and human trafficking, discrimination at work and the prohibition of or lack of access to freedom of association and collective bargaining. This article focuses on the risks of child labour and trafficking for forced labour in global supply chains.
According to the latest estimates, there are still 152 million girls and boys in child labour; more than 70 million work under hazardous and dangerous conditions. 25 million men, women and children are estimated to be in a situation of forced labour, which may entail debt bondage, trafficking and various forms of coercion. At the same time, global commitment to end these egregious human rights violations has grown significantly. Child labour has been reduced by more than 90 million since the ILO started measuring it in 2000. On forced labour, or what is often called “modern slavery”, trends cannot be measured as yet but the understanding of the problem has grown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact on global supply chains, particularly in sectors where demand is plummeting due to restrictive measures to safeguard public health. It also threatens to reverse decades of progress against child labour, forced labour and human trafficking. These gains have benefited the poorest and most disadvantaged working people and families. Experience from previous crises has shown that unemployment and loss of livelihoods will push many families into debt bondage, force them to resort to child labour and aggravate the risk of trafficking. Policy measures therefore need to be tailored to the needs of these vulnerable groups. As countries recover, social protection measures and universal quality basic education play a key role in preventing child labour and forced labour. These measures should be designed on an equitable and inclusive basis.
The Sustainable Development Agenda and the Alliance 8.7 Report
In 2015, UN Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Agenda (SDG Agenda for short), thereby committing to end all forms of child labour by 2025 and to take measures to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking by 2030. In 2017, participants of the IV Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour adopted the Buenos Aires Declaration, which outlines a detailed strategy for reaching Target 8.7. A year prior to the IV Global Conference, international organisations, social partners, NGOs and other actors created Alliance 8.7 with the joint objective to accelerate action against child labour, forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery at national, regional and global levels. Today, the Alliance is convening more than 200 partners from all parts of the world.
In 2017, Labour and Employment Ministers of the G20 called for a global report on child labour and forced labour; and one year later, they adopted an action plan to end child labour, forced labour and modern slavery in the world of work. Following the 2017 G20 Declaration, ILO, OECD, IOM and UNICEF created a research consortium under the Alliance 8.7 to analyse data and policy responses on child labour and trafficking for forced labour. The report (henceforth the Alliance 8.7 Report) was released at the Paris Peace Forum and the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in November 2019. Its key findings are summarised in this article.
Data on child labour and forced labour in global supply chains
By combining data from the partners of the Alliance 8.7 Report, it was possible to estimate the presence of child labour in global supply chains in different sectors and regions. The same was done, albeit on an experimental basis, for trafficking for forced labour. The results indicate that 26 per cent of child labour in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia contributes to exports to other regions (directly or indirectly). The percentage is somewhat lower for the other regions: 12 per cent for Sub-Saharan Africa, 9 per cent for Northern and Western Africa, 22 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean and 12 per cent for Central and Southern Asia.2 While most child labour is still linked to domestic production and consumption, the above figures demonstrate that there is a considerable risk of child labour affecting global supply chains. The risks can be associated in particular with agriculture, manufacturing and mining. Most importantly, the analysis showed that a significant share of child labour associated with global supply chains can be found downstream or at the lower tiers of resource extraction or the production of agricultural commodities.
Trafficking for forced labour also contributes to global supply chains, although further regional- and industry-specific research is required to produce reliable estimates. Regional variations related to the share of trafficking for forced labour that can be associated with global supply chains are between 4 and 17 per cent. Trafficking for forced labour occurs frequently in non-export-related services and industries, such as domestic and care work and construction. It is also prevalent in agriculture, where systems of servitude have mutated into new forms of coercion, often affecting migrant workers, indigenous people and other groups of people who face discrimination in the labour market. Various forms of labourrelated trafficking have been widely documented in EU Member States.3
Risk factors and additional research needs identified
The Alliance 8.7 Report identified a number of risk factors which are important for the development of policies by governments as well as private and public enterprises. For example, in countries that insufficiently or inconsistently implement and enforce international standards pertaining to the prohibition of child labour, human trafficking and forced labour, enterprises will be faced with a permissive culture of certain exploitative practices. Private compliance initiatives can partially mitigate this risk, but they are no substitute for effective statutory regulation and enforcement. Another structural risk factor pertains to socio-economic pressures which require comprehensive government responses, such as the extension of social protection floors and access to finance for small producers. Finally, risk factors are also directly related to the business environment and the extent to which responsible business conduct is being promoted in a particular country and sector. This requires strong social dialogue and collective bargaining mechanisms to mitigate undue competitive pressure.
The Alliance 8.7 Report has pioneered a methodology for measuring fundamental rights violations in global supply chains and developed an analytical model for better understanding risk factors and effective responses. Despite the limitations of data, it has shown a way forward to stimulate further research and data collection, particularly with a view to developing a better industry- and sector-specific understanding of the risks of child labour and forced labour in global supply chains.4
Growing awareness has paved the way for regulatory measures
The growing awareness and understanding of fundamental rights violations, such as child labour and forced labour, has paved the way for enhanced policy and legislative measures in all parts of the world. EU Member States have ratified all fundamental ILO Conventions and efforts are underway to accelerate ratification of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.5 The Protocol has a ground-breaking legal provision that requires ratifying Member States to “support due diligence by both the public and private sectors to prevent and respond to risks of forced or compulsory labour”. Some EU Member States have introduced supply chain transparency and due diligence legislation that require companies to publicly report on actions taken to address the risk of adverse human rights impacts across their supply chains.6 While it is too early to assess the full impact of such legislation, a greater sensitisation of businesses along the supply chain can be observed. These laws can also have a potentially positive impact on businesses in developing countries if their implementation is promoted through a bottom-up process. The ILO Resolution (2016) concerning decent work in global supply chains sets out further action that governments can take in this area.7
„While most child labour is still linked to domestic production and consumption, the above figures demonstrate that there is a considerable risk of child labour affecting global supply chains.“
There are opportunities to harmonise legislative and other approaches to promote due diligence in supply chains across the European Union, to create a level playing field for companies and to improve a common understanding of benchmarks and good practices.
Opportunities for promoting due diligence at EU level
While it is beyond the mandate of the ILO to put forward an EU approach, a number of initiatives might provide an additional opening for the promotion of due diligence in supply chains at EU level, such as the drafting of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights,8 and the announced review of the Non-Financial Reporting Directive 2014/95/EU. Lessons might also be drawn from the implementation experience of relevant EU policies, such as the EU strategy on corporate social responsibility (which expired in 2014) and existing EU legislation such as the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation 2017/821.
The 2014 Protocol refers explicitly to the role of the public sector by setting standards of responsible business conduct. Some governments are already reviewing their public procurement practices with a view to developing standards to prevent fundamental rights violations, notably forced labour and human trafficking.9 The UN has recently started a sustainable procurement initiative, supported also by the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Human Trafficking (ICAT). Further exchange of lessons learned could be promoted among EU Member States and multilateral organisations. The European Commission, which also has a sustainable public procurement policy, could play a leading role.
ILO and UN standards on child labour, forced labour and human trafficking are complemented by the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive 2011/36/EU and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. In its many reports on the implementation of the Convention, the Group of Experts on Trafficking in Persons (GRETA) has called on ratifying parties to develop measures to prevent trafficking of children and trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation.
Approach within the scope of development work and trade policy
Effective measures to mitigate the risk of child labour and forced labour in global supply chains are also embedded in development cooperation and trade policies. Several EU Member States as well as the European Commission support efforts to eliminate child labour and forced labour through comprehensive development cooperation projects, focusing for example on cotton picking, mining (including small-scale artisanal mining) and agriculture and food products such as cocoa, coffee, fish and palm oil.10 Many lessons have been learnt through the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour (IPEC+). For example, for these development cooperation projects to be effective, they have to be linked to broader upstream policy development which goes beyond a specific sector or industry. Such policies should focus, for instance, on extending social protection floors to small-scale farmers and informal-sector workers, expanding access to education in rural communities with a particular focus on girls, establishing fair recruitment practices for migrant workers in export- and non-export-related industries and promoting trade unions and other forms of collective engagement.
Such policies can also be promoted through trade-related dialogue. The scope and reach of trade policies and arrangements are increasing and so are provisions related to international labour standards. According to one recent assessment, there are 85 regional trade agreements that include labour provisions, representing about one-third of all trade agreements in force.11
„There are opportunities to harmonise legislative and other approaches to promote due diligence in supply chains across the European Union, to create a level playing field for companies and to improve a common understanding of benchmarks and good practices.“
Most of these trade agreements refer specifically to the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work, including child labour and forced labour and the promotion of corporate social responsibility/responsible business conduct through the trade for sustainable development (TSD) chapters. These chapters promote the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD MNE Guidelines) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Coherent international instruments for globally operating companies
All three international instruments promote business respect for the fundamental principles and rights at work and invite businesses to take measures to eliminate child labour and forced labour. Coherence is particularly important to avoid a proliferation of expectations at the international level and across countries, which can create challenges for businesses operating globally. The three organisations are therefore actively working to ensure alignment among their instruments and implementation programmes. Each instrument refers to the others and builds on each other’s important added value. For example, the due diligence approach set out in the UN Guiding Principles was subsequently incorporated in the OECD MNE Guidelines and the ILO MNE Declaration. More recently, the 2018 OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct promotes a common understanding on due diligence for responsible business conduct.
Both ILO and OECD have also developed sector-specific guidance for minerals, extractives, garment and footwear, agriculture and other sectors, which could be further disseminated among EU Member States.
Measures as part of trade-related dialogues
Through trade-related dialogues between the EU and its trade partners, specific expectations can be articulated in relation to legislation and promoting responsible business conduct, thereby preventing the exports of goods or services tainted by child labour, forced labour, or other human rights violations. An important aspect of these trade and investment agreements is to ensure access to remedies for victims of human rights violations, particularly in countries where judicial institutions are weak and freedom of association and peaceful assembly are not protected by law.
„Coherence is particularly important to avoid a proliferation of expectations at the international level and across countries, which can create challenges for businesses operating globally.“
In September 2019, the then-candidate for EC President, Ursula von der Leyen, issued political guidelines for the new European Commission, which included a “zero tolerance policy on child labour”.12 This has since been communicated to various EC Directorates. The implementation of this new policy could encompass new trade-related measures and it would be important to combine such measures with political dialogue, development cooperation and private sector engagement.
Coordinated approach to combating child and forced labour
Finally, there are opportunities to accelerate action at national levels in line with the SDG Agenda /Target 8.7 and to create synergies across sectors. The Alliance is currently chaired by France, with Argentina acting as deputy, and many EU Member States are actively engaged in this multi-stakeholder partnership. Countries can become pathfinders of Alliance 8.7 if they demonstrate enhanced measures against child labour and forced labour at home and abroad.13
Regional organisations can also join the Alliance 8.7. Through the Alliance, coordinated action to address child labour and forced labour in supply chains has also been stimulated through new collaborative initiatives. The Alliance is also connecting with business networks, notably the Child Labour Platform, the Forced Labour Business Network (which also includes the Consumer Goods Forum and many other business associations). Enterprises, employers’ organisations and business associations engaged in these networks are keen to discuss and develop concrete solutions on the ground; in this context, they work with governments, trade unions and other actors. These business engagement opportunities could be promoted more widely across the European Union and its trade partners. Furthermore, the international community will commemorate the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour in 2021 and concrete measures could be presented by EU Member States and institutions.
„To paraphrase the famous slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, businesses and governments ‘may choose to look the other way, but they cannot say they didn’t know’. “
To paraphrase the famous slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce, businesses and governments ‘may choose to look the other way, but they cannot say they didn’t know’. The prevalence of child labour and forced labour has been widely documented, including in the most recent Alliance 8.7 Report linking these human rights violations to global supply chains. This growing understanding has created a new momentum for action: now is the time to seize these opportunities and to act.