Child labor remains common in global supply chains

Today there are 168 million children engaged in child labor around the world according to the International Labour Organization.

"No company should profit from child labor," this is what Human Rights Watch states in a video ahead of the World Day against Child Labor, June 12, 2016.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) an estimate of 168 million children are involved in this practice globally. From these, 85 million are engaged in hazardous work, bad for their health and safety.

Children risk pain, sickness, injury and even death to produce the goods and services of the global economy. Human Rights Watch documented children's experience working in agriculture, mining, the leather and apparel industry among other sectors.

“Consumers usually have no way of knowing whether the food they eat, the clothing and jewelry they wear, or other products they buy were made with child labor,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

The video shows children working in gold mines in the Philippines and Tanzania, weaving carpets in Afghanistan, and toiling tobacco fields in the United States and agricultural settlements in the West Bank.

Complicated supply chains facilitate child labor to happen. Each stage, from the extraction of raw materials  to the assembling of goods, can happen in multiple countries and markets across the globe. Children can be exploited at any stage, but it is common in early stages of production.

Children are facing constant risks regardless the work they're preforming, but mining is considered as the most dangerous form of child labor.

An estimated 1 million children worldwide work in small-scale, labor-intensive mines. They face death and injuries climbing into unstable mine shafts or carrying heavy bags of ore. They can be poisoned with mercury, the substance used to separate gold from waste. Poisoning can cause neurological problems and even irreversible brain damage.

Tanneries in Bangladesh often employ children, some as young as 11, this industry exports more than $1 billion dollars worth of leather each year. Children can become ill due to exposure to hazardous chemicals and workplace accidents.

The tobacco industry is also dangerous for children. Tobacco farms in the United States and Indonesia were documented by Human Rights Watch. At least half of the child tobacco workers presented symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. They include nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.

In agriculture sector is no different, an estimated 70% of child laborers work in this sector. It is hazardous due to toxic pesticide exposure.  Exposure can cause cancer, respiratory difficulties, reflective health problems and neurological deficits. Also, working with sharp tools or heavy machinery and laboring in extreme weather conditions represents a risk for children.

Human Rights Watch found that Palestinian children often work in these conditions on Israeli agricultural settlements in the West Bank, usually these crops are exported to the US and Europe.

Child labor creates a vicious cycle of poverty. Children usually work to help their families, they drop out of school to do it and grow up to find dead end jobs and missed opportunies, so they can't go ahead.

Governments should better regulate business and impose mandatory restrictions to prevent child labor in global supply chains and other human rights violations.

So far, existing international standards related to businesses and child labor are voluntary like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprices, but  they have no enforcement mechanism.

On May 30, representatives of governments, trade unions and eployer organizations began discussions regarding the possibility of new ILO standards on decent work in global supply chains at ILO's Conference in Geneva.

“When standards are voluntary, some companies take them seriously, but others simply ignore them even though the lives and safety of children and other workers are at stake,” Becker said. “Governments should impose mandatory rules on businesses to make sure they address child labor and other human rights abuses throughout their supply chains.”


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