Child Labor and COVID-19: Time to Make Meaningful New Year’s Supply Chain Resolutions | Perkins Coie


The holiday season is a time for contemplation, reflection and planning for the future. Additionally, having spent nearly two years in a pandemic has undoubtedly caused many of us to re-evaluate our values ​​and priorities. As the New Year approaches, now is a great time to turn the page and commit to making or re-establishing good habits.

Businesses shouldn’t be any different. Companies that assess their businesses, review their operations, and set New Year’s resolutions can start 2022. Better yet, certain New Year’s resolutions can advance environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals broadly and significantly. literally affect millions of children. suffering in the world, in particular.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report that the number of children trapped in child labor is on the rise. Every four years since 2000, the ILO has assessed the percentage of working children. For the first time, the percentage over a four-year period (2016-2020) has stagnated, which means that the absolute number of child laborers has increased. Although arriving at precise figures is inherently a delicate undertaking, the ILO estimates that by the start of 2020, 160 million children had been engaged in child labor.

Against the backdrop of this distressing trend in child labor, COVID-19 quickly followed and created the elements of a tragic and perfect storm: (1) a greater supply of sensitive children; (2) greater demand for cheap labor; (3) businesses (and families) in financial difficulty; (4) companies shift their resources from business improvement to business sustainability; and (5) reduced protections against child labor due to reduced regulatory enforcement and oversight, factory tours, etc. What follows is a brief overview of how this quintet of worrying trends has generated a record number of child laborers.

Child labor supply

The pandemic has disrupted business operations, supply chains and economies around the world, worsening the plight of our world’s most vulnerable people. Millions of workers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. This rising unemployment and loss of income have pushed many households into poverty, forcing children into wage earners to help make ends meet. As if these facts weren’t enough, school closures around the world have affected an estimated one billion students. And sadder still, many of these children depended on schools for their meals. The result is that more children than ever have been drafted into work, and many are trapped in dangerous work activities like mining, farming, and manufacturing. Common injuries include burns, amputations, fractures, blindness, exposure to toxins, and electrocution. These exposures increase the risk of developing lifelong neurological disorders, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Application for child labor

COVID-19 has increased demand for cheap labor as businesses upstream and downstream in supply chains face declining revenues. Many companies were forced to cut wages to make even a small profit. Sadly, corruption is taking hold in these desperate times. And like hawks in search of prey, organized child traffickers, who care little about the health of their “labor force” and will make a profit whenever possible, see a golden opportunity in the midst of this misery. . Rather than paying fair wages, these criminals “employ” forced labor and child labor at the lowest possible cost. Likewise, shady labor recruiters, recognizing this economic shift, have been more aggressive in recruiting workers. In addition, these low wages intensify the struggle to escape debt bondage (where a person’s services are pledged as collateral for debt repayment), as less income makes it more difficult to repay debt.

Less protections

With many global supply chains in chaos and strained government resources, COVID-19 has tragically also reduced the mechanisms that would otherwise tackle child labor. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private parties have been hampered in their ability to exercise their normal control. The pandemic has minimized travel, preventing customers, third-party auditors, government regulators and authorities responsible for finding child labor from inspecting factories and other sites. In addition, many organizations created to protect and support survivors of human trafficking (including forced labor and child labor) have seen their funding dwindle during the pandemic.

Hope and resolutions

At the risk of bringing some negativity to the holiday season, knowledgeable observers agree that the current picture of child labor around the world looks grim. This holiday season, however, can also offer the promise of hope and a more caring and empathetic future.

As we begin to see a (faint) glow at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are also getting closer and closer to a time of judgment. Consumers and authorities alike will soon be gauging the behavior of businesses during the period when fewer were watching.

In short, the time has come to put the Compliance Houses in order. Businesses can make New Year’s resolutions to resume the fight against child labor inside and outside their supply chains. Consumers, and especially the ever-expanding subgroup of socially conscious consumers, will expect nothing less.

Here are eight resolutions businesses can take to bring joy to at-risk children:

  1. Engage in robust messaging. Company leaders, including senior management, should stress the importance of company opposition to all forms of child labor. The holiday season is an easy time for these leaders to speak up and influence the entire organization as well as stakeholders and business partners. However, aftercare is important, and unlike those diets and exercise programs that people forget in February, these executives should continue to champion their company policies through 2022.
  2. Dust off and update the company’s code of conduct. Companies should create, review or revise their code of conduct (guidelines for employees and management to clarify and make decisions that are consistent with the mission statement, core values ​​and company policies), policies (the specific rules that support guidelines), and procedures (the acts or means of complying with a company’s policies). Companies should also ensure that these documents specifically and concretely address child labor and other human rights issues. For example, if a company is required to publish, but has not put in place, the disclosures required by California’s Supply Chain Transparency Act or UK Modern Slavery Act, it must engage an experienced lawyer to help him do so.
  3. Honestly assess the company’s risk profile. Companies should rigorously check their supply chains to assess the risks of child labor and human rights violations. They should implement practical and targeted measures to eliminate any risk that may exist. Obviously, this is not a one-off act but an activity that must continue throughout the year.
  4. Make sure suppliers understand the company’s expectations. Companies should partner with suppliers and their supplier employees to ensure that suppliers comply with company requirements regarding child labor and human trafficking. Procurement agreements should require compliance with applicable laws and regulations as well as the incorporation of the company’s code of conduct and audit rights.
  5. Trust, but verify with targeted audits. Companies should engage in a practical, risk-based supplier audit program, in which they assess suppliers’ compliance with company standards regarding child labor and other important concerns. Social audits must be adapted to address the priority subjects of the company. The audit program should first focus on the suppliers that pose the most risk to the business.
  6. Train to ensure understanding. Companies should train their employees and managers responsible for supply chain management on child labor and human trafficking. They should focus on identifying and mitigating risks within their supply chains. Note that many nonprofits, vendors, and even lawyers offer such training and may provide industry specific presentations. Businesses should stress the importance of identifying these issues and reporting them to management and law enforcement.
  7. Ensure confidential report options. Companies should establish a toll-free helpline where employees, suppliers and other stakeholders can confidentially report prohibited child labor and other violations of company policies. Companies should post the hotline with the assurance that employees of suppliers do not have to fear retaliation.
  8. For “extra credit,” post what the business is doing (not overestimating or underestimating). If the company’s compliance program has reached the appropriate level of maturity, it can commit to publishing (or be required to publish) a robust annual report summarizing all of the company’s ESG efforts, including those relating to child labor, with objective measures of achievements and successes. As with all company statements, special care should be taken to ensure that the report is precise and ambitious rather than overconfident and promising “absolutes”.

ILO reports on child labor are distressing and the pandemic has made the situation worse. This holiday season, however, we can have hope for a better world. Join us in making New Year’s resolutions to finally bring at least a minimum of joy to the millions of children who may never have known him.

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