When 11 year-old Rashmi from India’s Beed district was told she would have to drop out of school and cut sugarcane on farms in less than a month, she had no other choice but to comply.
“I was not able to access classes online because we do not have a mobile phone.”
As a girl, Rashmi is already less likely to access or complete her education. Without the necessary resources, such as a mobile phone or access to the internet to attend online classes during COVID, her progress was further impeded.
“My mother is the only earning member of my family and I have two younger brothers. Due to COVID, this is the first time in more than a year that we have got some work, so we will do it to survive”, says Rashmi.
Rashmi is one of millions of children who have either never had access to education or have had to drop out of school due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, Rashmi follows a well-trodden path. For years, India’s sugarcane farms have been tainted with serious allegations related to normalisation of abusive practices including child labour, as well as bonded labour, forced labour and sexual violence against women, as a recent study by our organisation found.
Countless children like her have lost what little hope they might have had to enjoy an education or childhood, where they won’t have to toil their lives away on farms or in factories. With school closures affecting nearly 91% of the world’s student population, over 1.5 billion learners have had their education disrupted, of which roughly half (743 million) are girls. Before COVID, an estimated 152 million children were already engaged in child labour in various supply chains, a number that concerned stakeholders believe will inevitably increase with the rise of pandemic induced poverty.
COVID-19 has also exposed the vulnerability of cross-country supply chains, with negative consequences for high risk countries and their local economies pushing millions towards poverty. Restrictions implemented to contain the virus have led to disruptions in key global trade commodities such as cocoa, coffee and sugarcane and many different textiles.
From cocoa farmers in rural Ghana and Ivory Coast to shrimpers in Bangladesh, agribusiness is one of many sectors that have faced severe economic distress due to the pandemic – exacerbating pre-existing problems. The increase of child labour in cocoa supply chains this year triggered the largest ever class action lawsuit against leading chocolate companies, and prompted multiple articles on the issue in this sub-sector. Faced with a two-fold setback in 2020, COVID and cyclone Amphan, Bangladesh’s shrimp industry suffered the wreckage of thousands of shrimp farms across the country amid rising pressure to supply in the midst of a deadly pandemic. An industry already beset with abuses including child labour, as well as gender-based violence at work, poor wages and unfair working conditions, was further aggravated by the onslaught of two major ecological disasters.
These developments are deeply concerning, especially as we near the global commitment to end child labour in all its forms. SDG Target 8.7 calls for immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour and the end of child labour in all its forms by 2025. With the deadline fast approaching, it’s worth asking whether the private sector, recognised as a key SDG stakeholder to achieve this, is doing its best to address the issue of child labour in their supply chains.
According to the 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, almost half (46%) of the world’s leading companies have failed to show any commitment or evidence towards identifying and addressing child labour and other human rights issues in their supply chains. With private sector human rights due diligence processes highlighted as the area that needs the most improvement.
While various international due diligence legislations have the potential to transform voluntary supply chain initiatives into mandatory obligations for companies and brands, it is also crucial businesses move towards comprehensive supply chain mapping. Challenges faced by local economies dominated by informality, especially in sectors such as agriculture, mining and essential services, need to be understood and addressed to eliminate enabling risks of child labour.
Existing supply chain interventions do not take into consideration the underlying structural issues contributing to inequality such as gender, caste and violence against minorities. These all play a key role in enabling child labour. Ongoing challenges such as limited educational infrastructure, shrinking civic space and corruption also need to be taken into consideration for meaningful action on the ground. Rather than focusing simply on global supply chain interventions or relying on certifications, a more multifaceted, multi-stakeholder and the ‘whole of supply chain’ approach is needed for a better route to achieve the 2025 deadline and address the pandemic’s impacts for a just recovery.
The ‘area based approach’ is a key example of potentially effective intervention. By focusing on tackling child labour within a specific geographic area, with the help of community participation and monitoring, this approach helps build trust among value chain partners including producers, governments, businesses and communities, via long-term commitments. It has already been successfully implemented in regions of South Asia and Africa, in the form of child friendly villages and child labour free zones. Here, increased trust and collaboration between multiple stakeholders is working to eliminate child labour. Informal producers and workers who have been hard to reach are likely to be included within such an approach. Furthermore, it has the potential to ensure access to remedy; a crucial aspect of human rights due diligence for companies.
The need to accelerate progress to address child labour is more urgent than ever. Global stakeholders concerned about child labour and other human rights issues in supply chains, have already lost valuable time deliberating potential solutions instead of implementing them. 2021, as the International Year for Elimination of Child Labour, presents a crucial opportunity for the private sector to demonstrate their commitment to initiate and accelerate their efforts to scale up such interventions. To end child labour, hardwiring commitments and effective approaches into our plans for just recovery would be an essential step forward.