At the >BSR Conference this year, I moderated a lively, insightful, and solutions-focused panel on “Child Labor, Culture, and Compliance.” Given the breadth of private, public, and civil society experience among our panelists and the audience, we were able to come up with some concrete solutions, including the sharing of effective monitoring tools and early-warning systems to pick up and respond swiftly to instances of child labor, and to outline what good remediation looks like—which, in this instance, is about giving a child laborer his or her life back.
The group agreed that policing children out of the formal sector supply chain is not good enough given the unintended consequence of children falling into more precarious work conditions, such as working for shadowy subcontractors or worse taking up jobs in the informal sector such as welding or prostitution.
I was struck by how far we have come, with examples of companies, government, and NGOs forming unlikely partnerships to listen to the local community and find ways to provide education and vocational skills to give children and their families better alternatives.
Yet one thing that puzzled me was how full the room was for this workshop, with representation from the toy, apparel, footwear, electronics, and food sectors. It made me wonder: In this era of sophistication when it comes to CSR, when we have moved on from basic legal compliance to talking about value creation, from doing no harm to improving the lives of workers and restoring the environment, from making products less bad to focusing on access and experience and putting less stuff into the world, why are we still banding together in such large numbers to discuss the continued persistence and difficulties in battling child labor?
In speaking to members of the audience, I heard widespread acknowledgment of an increase in the number of child laborers detected in global supply chains. Some of this increase can be attributed to the power and fluidity of today’s information flow, which has improved detection rates. However, the “resurgence” of child labor can also be attributed to our extended period of economic stagnation, in which job loss and the softening of consumer demand have retailers working hard to slash prices to stay afloat, causing suppliers to search for ways to make cheaper products by reducing labor costs. Child labor is a by-product of poverty and inequity, so in these tough economic times, it is no surprise that more companies have discovered children working in factories and farms.
This made me wonder: What other fundamental CSR issues that we thought we had a handle on are back because of these difficult economic times? And in an era in which CSR means so much more than “do no harm,” how are companies keeping up with these growing expectations while still addressing the fundamentals?