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Child labour issues and trends for 2023

The year 2022 will be remembered for many crises: the war in Ukraine and its impacts on global supply chains, cost of agricultural inputs, the energy crisis, rising inflation, labour unrest and the aftermath of the Covid 19 pandemic. These multiples crises will continue to challenge both society and business in 2023. The negative impacts will be felt even more acutely among children, particularly those in agricultural communities.

In this article, ECLT Foundation sets out its prognoses of top 5 issues in the business and human rights space in 2023, particularly as they relate to child labour. We believe businesses, civil society and multistakeholder initiatives will have to consider these issues more carefully in 2023 and beyond.

1. Child labour will remain a salient human rights issue that poses an extreme risk to business, especially in agricultural supply chains. Allegations of child labour in supply chains can have both reputational and financial consequences.

In the recent past, we have seen the scope of legislation, product bans, official reports and media allegations focusing on child labour in supply chains. Some prominent examples include the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence Act (2019) and the US withold release orders. We see the spotlight continuing to focus on child labour in agriculture in 2023, for two reasons.

First, the latest child labour estimates from ILO and UNICEF (2020) show that 70 percent of all children in child labour, 112 million children in total, are in agriculture and that the sector is an entry point to child labour. As such, ECLT expects that States, social partners and other stakeholders will expedite the implementation of six commitments in the Durban Call to Action on the Elimination of Child Labour, especially the scaling up of action to end child labour in agriculture.

Second, as the SDG 8.7 target to end child labour in all its forms by 2025 approaches, ECLT anticipates that there will be more pressure on actors in the agricultural sector to re-double their efforts to reverse the child labour trend across the board.

2. Meaningful stakeholder engagement is a critical requirement in the UNGPs and other key frameworks, such as the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct and the OECD-FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains. The recent 11th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights held in Geneva in November 2022 also shined the spotlight on stakeholder engagement. We see the need for effective stakeholder consultation gain more prominence in 2023 and beyond.

Meaningful consultation with affected stakeholders will be required at several key moments in human rights due diligence: in identifying and assessing actual and potential human rights impacts; in tracking and reporting on company efforts to prevent and manage those impacts; and in designing effective grievance mechanisms and remediation processes.

3. Training and technical assistance to translate normative human rights standards into practice – training, the provision of customisable and practical tools, guidance and technical assistance are essential in helping companies, governments and organizations to implement their obligations to fulfil human rights. ECLT anticipates that the need for actionnable tools will be more important for governments and business linked with rural smallholder agriculture. In rural settings, translating human rights standards into practice is complicated by widespread informality, geographical dispersion of workplaces, low literacy, high transaction costs and ingrained harmful cultural practices.

4. Addressing all the root causes of child labour - currently, environmental rights are increasingly being linked to human rights. In the same token, ECLT anticipates that child labour and other human rights issues such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, and occupational safety and health will continue to merge, both in law and in practice. This calls for business, government and MSIs to focus on addressing the multifaceted root causes of child labour by adopting landscape approaches and collaborating with other actors linked to their operations and business activities.

5. Mandatory due diligence regulation - mandatory due diligence requirements are likely to intensify and proliferate. This means that companies will need to know and show how they address their legal compliance requirements, including child labour. As a result, ECLT anticipates that there will be more pressure from investors, shareholders and customers for suppliers to demonstrate compliance, even if suppliers do not fall within the legal thresholds. Consequently, there will be increased pressure on multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) such as ECLT Foundation to demonstrate value-added to their members so that the members can amplify their individual positive impacts.

Considering the above five issues and trends, ECLT Foundation urges businesses, MSIs and other organisations to consider:

1. Fostering cooperation and coordination to end child labour in agriculture – it is widely recognized that a breakthrough in the agricultural sector is a necessary condition for ending child labour. However, the fight against child labour in agriculture is currently hampered by fragmentation and inadequate funding at all levels. A smart mix of inclusive global strategies, coordination mechanisms, national action plans, policies and adequate funding for action programmes is urgently needed to end child labour in the agricultural sector, as recommended by UN experts and ECLT Foundation.

2. The need for a rights holder-focused stakeholder engagement - in practice, many human rights impacts can be linked back to challenges related to stakeholder engagement. A common trap in corporate stakeholder engagement approaches is a focus on engaging with those stakeholders who have high influence and therefore can affect a company’s business activities, at the expense of engaging those stakeholders who may be less influential but are significantly affected by its activities. Children fall in the latter category, as they often lack voice and visibility. This challenge can be illustrated in the following diagram, adopted from Shift, which maps stakeholders against these two criteria:


Effective stakeholder engagement will require paying equal attention to both from ‘risk to business’ (yellow quadrant) to ‘risk to people’ (red quadrant).

3. Specialist training and capacity building - in addressing child labour in agriculture, the primary duty-bearers are governments, parents/ guardians and businesses directly and indirectly involved in commercial relationships with farmers. Multistakeholder initiatives, consultancy firms and civil society organizations (CSOs) cannot replace these primary duty-bearers. However, MSIs, consultancies and CSOs can provide ‘fit for purpose’ training and capacity building for relevant government staff, procurement professionals, sustainability managers and operational managers to equip them with knowledge, tools and skills to fulfil children’s rights. As the move towards mandatory human rights due diligence intensifies, we see a growing need to equip primary duty-bearers with specialist training, tools and expertise in 2023 and beyond.

4. Shift from reactionary to proactive human rights compliance - the ‘do no harm’ principle is at the heart of effective human rights due diligence and responsible corporate behaviour. Accordingly, governments and businesses in the agricultural sector must adopt policies and processes, take actions to prevent child labour, underpinned by training and awareness raising, to allow them to take pre-emptive action against potential liability and risks to stakeholders in their supply chains.

We wish all our collaborating partners a prosperous and a 2023 filled with positive impact.