In a society where basic social infrastructure does not exist or function, how should responsible companies address child labour issue?

Majority of us would agree that social issues are complex, subjective and context-driven. However, there seem to have 1 issue that most of us would agree, child labour should stop. I remember this exact discussion that took place in one of our residential workshops in a beautiful campus in Cambridge. People’s unanimous response to that question actually made me wonder. Really? Wouldn’t there be a situation where children would rather work in a decent company and access social security(e.g. ID, basic health care) than anything else? Are we not simplifying the issues and believing what we want to believe in a fairy tale world?

The reality is..there are 153 million orphans in the world, according to the UNICEF, but the real number of children who need support must be a lot more than this, as this must have missed orphans in a remote area or countries with instability (including war). Moreover, there could be many children who have parents or guardian officially but are practically abandoned or unprotected. It is not hard to find news articles or reports highlighting ineffectiveness of government system when it comes to providing necessary protections and support for orphans, especially in countries in the South that are in the frontline of supply chain for all the global companies. 

Few weeks later, I was chatting with my colleagues who stayed at one of the palm plantations for 3 months as a management trainee at one of the largest palm companies. He mentioned that in the area that he was posted, there were 2 police officers covering the community that is a size of Singapore. He was explaining to me that in a rural area with typically 1 dominating company feeding the whole community, they operate as a quasi-government. Their roles go a lot beyond providing employment opportunities for grown-ups. They provide electricity, port, school, hospital and sometimes security. This two made me wonder what would be the best course of action for a company like that in addressing orphans and child labour issues?

I came across below definition of child labor from the ILO, and if I may, this is making a huge assumption that all the people who offer work to starving children are exploitative and cold-blooded profit seeking. Companies with good sustainability efforts would make a statement that they will not engage in any child labour across its supply chain to avoid any questions and problems. It is easier to distant themselves from the complicating issues.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines child labor as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

I know. Hold your breath. What I am about to say is not comfortable and will raise 100 different questions that I do not have an answer to. However, I think it is important for us to face the reality and speak about the real solutions. 

I would like to argue that companies with good sustainability engagement and governance(especially in those less connected community) should actively engage children in needs in order to provide an opportunity to have a proper identity (yes many of them do not have ID), access to education (in the form of perk), basic health care and opportunities to earn money to feed themselves and their dependents with dignity. If we rely on charitable actions from corporates fully, there is always a risk that it might not continue (being the first target of budget cut in a difficult time).

I am never saying that child labour should be encouraged, but I am hoping to see some different narratives when it comes to child labor, especially from bold sustainability leaders in the world who understand the real issues on the ground and have capacity and intention to address these issues. And when they do that, I do hope my peer future leaders can listen to their stories as well with open mind and fairness. 

I will just end my blog by quoting my ex-colleague who was running a garment factory in India during our discussion on sustainability, “I have kids in my factory, and I am not ashamed of it. Because if I do not hire them to do small jobs, they will either starve or join the gangs. I cannot turn my back on them, when they ask for work.”

2 thoughts on “In a society where basic social infrastructure does not exist or function, how should responsible companies address child labour issue?

  1. Thank you for your post and sharing your insights as well as experiences.

    I like that you are challenging the status quo thinking in this area in relation to child labour. It is certainly brave to discuss your views in this area as they can often be controversial. However, as you mention in your blog, we have to face the realities of these sustainability issues in order to arrive at a better solution. The easy way is to turn a blind eye to the issues or (worse yet) come up with an overly simplistic solution to the issue.

    I agree that different solutions need to be discussed. From my experience, there tends to be a greater need to engage emerging market companies on issues relating to child labour in the supply chain. This is not driven by cultural bias (I hope) but rather an acknowledgement that there are less stringent rules/regulations in places such as Asia in relation to child labour. However, much less thought has been given to the underlying reasons why child labour exists in emerging markets such as the fact they are developing nations; or perhaps the fact that the average social welfare in these nations is much less. This can ultimately mean that, as a child, you cannot afford to not work. This is not the case in developed markets where social welfare is strong enough to ensure that children which do not work have a base-line assurance of a livelihood.

    Whilst there is no simple solution – there needs to be greater acknowledgement of the different market realities in each country; rather than simply imposing one’s own moral standard on another’s operations, which may also have even more detrimental knock-on negative social impacts (on children!).

    Thanks for sharing


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