According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are some 168 million children trapped in child labor, which the ILO defines as ‘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 altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited’. While this has fallen dramatically since the turn of the Millennium, when there were 246 million, this is still unacceptably high. More than half of them, 85 million, were found to be in hazardous work.
Child laborers can be found in all stages of supply chains across a wide range of industries, including agriculture, manufacturing and retail. The problem is particularly pronounced in the fashion industry, where the race to produce cheap clothes sees recruiters from factories in south India prey on those in impoverished rural areas, convincing parents to release their children into their ward with the promise of 3 meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling. However, a recent report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) found that ‘in reality, they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour’.
Child labor is morally repugnant. It exploits the world’s most vulnerable, causing death, injury, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. For companies to be involved with the practice is a PR disaster, and many have taken a harsh line in public about the issue. Apple, for one, claims that whenever it discovers an underage worker in its supply chain, it sends the child home safely, continues paying his or her wages, and even finances the child’s education and offers employment once doing so is legal. Not to be outdone, Samsung says it immediately ceases its relationship with their suppliers.
However, their willingness to tactively root out such issues is another matter. A recent report by Amnesty International found a number of cases of child labor among suppliers linked to major technology companies, including Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, and Sony, among others. Amnesty found that the cobalt mining industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to more than half of the world’s cobalt supply, was employing children as young as 7. Amnesty and Afrewatch researchers reportedly visited artisanal mines in southern DRC in the spring of 2015, and spoke with 17 child miners working 12-hour shifts at a wage of just $1–$2 a day.
Given their public stance, the response from these firms has been particularly uninspiring. Samsung SDI, which supplies batteries to both Samsung and Apple, claimed that determining whether its cobalt is mined in the DRC is impossible. It would be easy to believe this. Supply chains are extremely complex, and, put simply, rogue employers can get away with employing children because it is so hard for companies to control and monitor every stage of production.
However, technology is making the world a far smaller place than it once was, and these sort of excuses seem like simple laziness. It’s hard to believe that a firm with the resources of Apple and Samsung are really unable to eliminate child labour from their supply chains. In fairness, this is unlikely to be the result of a genuine moral deficiency on the part of any of the firms. People often remain willfully ignorant because information about ethical attributes can be laden with negative emotion and difficult to process, and opting to ignore it is a common human coping mechanism. It could also be simple naivety on the part of such firms, and they may think they are doing enough and some of their suppliers are just very adept at pulling the wool over their eyes.
Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that companies must do more. And governments must do more to ensure that they are doing it. At the moment, it is largely self-regulated. This is changing, and governments are starting to do more to force organizations to look harder at their supply chains and seriously engage with labour abuses in their business operations. Legislation in both the US and the UK now requires larger companies to publish annual reports on their efforts to keep child slavery out of their supply chain, while the 2010 California Transparency in Supply Chains Act has spawned a series of civil litigation suits, with consumers or workers using the legislation to launch legal actions against companies they accuse of making misleading public statements on their anti-slavery effort.
Obviously, companies are limited in what they can do by the unfortunate realities of the world we live in. Tackling child labour is really just a symptom of extreme poverty. Wherever it exists, there will always be children willing to work cheaply in dangerous conditions. While solving this should be the ultimate goal, all firms should be doing their utmost to ensure that they are fully apprised of their supply chain partner’s employment practices, and keep a watchful eye over them to ensure they are reputable.