9 Jun 2021

When It Comes to Fighting Child Labour, Due Diligence Can Make a Difference – if Built on Rights Holder Engagement

Human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) regulation can be a ground-breaking step in addressing child labour and other labour rights violations in global supply chains – but only if a tick-the-box approach is avoided and dialogue with rights holders and among supply chain partners is put front and centre.

The European Union (EU) and a host of national governments are working towards HREDD regulation that would encourage companies to put increasing effort into knowing and addressing the biggest human rights problems related to their operations and value chains. This could be a big step in the struggle to fulfil human rights.

Although it was all the way back in 1948 that the international community agreed on the rights of an individual and the duty of states to protect those rights, a consensus on the human rights role of corporations was only reached in 2011 through the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). Since then, this consensus has brought great new energy to political and commercial debates about responsible business conduct.

a box-ticking approach would make no meaningful difference for the 114 million children who, based on ILO estimates, do agricultural work that is harmful to them or interferes with their schooling

On this World Day Against Child Labour, we hope that the negotiations for binding HREDD rules advance swiftly and, in particular, that the regulatory proposal by the European Commission is tabled soon.

Yet, when turning the global consensus into binding legislation, there is also a risk of losing out on the transformative potential of the due diligence approach and ending with a rather trivial tick-the-box approach.

The UNGPs make a transformative call for companies to build their understanding of the human rights problems related to their operations and to work in collaboration with rights holders, trade unions and other stakeholders to address those problems. The OECD Due Diligence Guidelines further emphasise that rights holders, trade unions and human rights experts, are to be consulted and engaged at every step of the due diligence process.

Will binding regulation retain this transformative core? Or will it, in practice, end up being enough for companies to just commission a desk-top risk assessment, tighten their supplier code of conduct and add a grievance form to their website? Will a search for legal clarity reduce due diligence into a list of steps all different kinds of companies just need to tick off?

Such a box-ticking approach would make no meaningful difference for the 114 million children who, based on ILO estimates, do agricultural work that is harmful to them or interferes with their schooling. Or the 40 million children in other types of child labour.

It would be meaningless because a grievance channel means little for exploited workers who have scarce knowledge of it – as in the case with child labourers – or for those who fear the repercussions its use might bring upon them. A fear of repercussions is very sensible at all workplaces where social dialogue is very strained or non-existent. Further, tighter supplier requirements mean little where suppliers are neither ignorant nor negligent, but simply lack the resources and leverage to prevent and remediate human rights harms – which is of course not always but very often the case.

The design of HREDD regulation needs to heed the lessons learnt during the past decades of struggles against labour rights violations in global supply chains.

One of the widely tried and tested approaches to ceasing, preventing and remediating child labour in high-risk agricultural supply chains are Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation (CLMR) systems. These systems, run by or with farmer organisations themselves, typically entail all due diligence steps, going far beyond box-ticking.

To take one concrete example, we can learn from the Fairtrade-certified Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association. Since 2014, its CLMR system has entailed:

  • the development of a child labour and child protection commitment and policy;
  • capacity building through partnerships with Fairtrade, a local NGO, an agricultural college, UNICEF and national and district level government;
  • rightsholder-driven mapping of community risk hotspots;
  • ongoing risk assessment, awareness raising and monitoring, supported by local youth monitors;
  • supporting access to remedies in individual cases of child labour;
  • attempts to develop alternative income sources for affected households:
  • dialogue with the government and the Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry, to encourage the development of a national child labour monitoring and remediation system;
  • dialogue with ILO, UNICEF and the governments of the United States and Mexico.

The Farmers Association, however, faces difficulties in sustaining this work. It hopes to see rapid development in the national child labour and child protection system. Further, while it has gained some funding from Fairtrade and Fairtrade Premiums, the Association hopes that its buyers will soon recognise their responsibility to participate in preventing and remediating human rights harms.

So what is the lesson for HREDD regulation? That meaningful dialogue and collaboration among supply chain actors and rights holders needs to be front and centre.

Tytti Nahi is Business and Human Rights Lead at Fairtrade.