An estimated 160 million children are engaged in child labour globally. Bringing together more than 4,000 representatives from all sectors of global society including governments, trade unions, the private sector, civil society, regional and international organizations, think-tanks and academia, the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, coordinated by the United Nations, was held 15-20 May 2022 in Durban, South Africa.
Youth and children were represented from across the globe at the Conference, with presentations and discussions ending with a call to action to urgently improve intersectoral and multi-institutional collaboration to end child labour. It was widely recognised that because child labour is a highly complex and multidimensional issue, it cannot be effectively addressed without integrated approaches. Two conference events highlighted promising paths towards the desired goal.
UNICEF at the Conference
Side Event 6 featured Dr Ramya Subrahmanian, Chief of Child Rights and Protection at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, who presented emerging insights from UNICEF Innocenti's FCDO-funded research project - part of a cross-institutional collaboration in South Asia that involves the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University (IDS) and the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA). The project aims to identify effective educational strategies to reduce child labour in India and Bangladesh (home to 10.7 million child labourers). Insights from the first phase of research reflect the complexity of the issue and the need for understanding how educational interventions have different impacts on child labour depending on their specific design features and the context in which they are implemented.
Dr Subrahmanian emphasized that increasing the number of rigorous evaluation studies that identify the pathways and mechanisms through which education can reduce child labour needs to be a priority to strengthen the education sector's contribution to ending child labour.
Side Event 20 featured an eminent panel including the CEO of the Centre for Child Rights and Business, the VP of Human Rights at L'Oreal, the Head of the International Labour Affairs division at the Labour Directorate of Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and UNICEF Representatives. It was organized by the Government of Switzerland and moderated by UNICEF Innocenti's Dr Subrahmanian. The panel discussed the role of the private sector in helping tackle the systemic causes of child labour. As child labour is the result of a broad range of factors (including socio-cultural, economic, legal and political), the business sector needs to act on a range of different fronts to address the issue, including social and child protection.
Private sector involvement
Traditionally, the private sector has focused on mitigating child labour through the application of due diligence mechanisms, such as codes of conduct and audits. These mechanisms however, have not been sufficient at preventing child labour, which usually occurs throughout the supply chain and which is often made up of a range of loosely connected entities, some or many of which may operate in the informal sector. Remediation is also rare. Currently, only 33 companies worldwide have a remedy system for rescued child labourers.
The private sector can and must do more to prevent and mitigate child labour; from creating decent work for adults to providing more skills development opportunities to teenagers transitioning from secondary education into adulthood, and through providing employment insurance and income stability. In expanding their response, companies should look for multi-stakeholder solutions that are integrated with national systems, such as child labour monitoring or national child protection mechanisms, which make due diligence meaningful.
Private-public partnerships are crucial for implementing proven solutions at scale. Neither the private nor public sectors should or can go it alone. Take legislation as an example: governments can pass laws and support voluntary measures for companies to perform due diligence, integrate their data systems with public ones that disclose their information, but companies will only apply these approaches correctly if they are fully committed to eliminating child labour throughout their value chains. Companies demonstrating such commitment and engaging in such partnerships will achieve sustainable benefits not only for themselves, but also for the whole economy, through increased wages and widely shared social and economic development.
Finally, children's agency is a vital component in the fight against child labour. Children have an extraordinary capacity to produce complex analysis of their own situations. However, whilst it is important to be child-centred in research and action, Dr Subrahmanian pointed out the importance of recognising that children are often unable to resist exploitation, given power asymmetries with adults who may persuade or coerce them to work. Acknowledging children's rights requires collective action to ensure they are not placed in situations where they are compelled to bear the costs of early engagement with the world of work and labour.
For further information on UNICEF Innocenti’s work on child labour, click here.
About the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti
The Office of Research - Innocenti is UNICEF's dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Visit our website and follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.