Children with painful chemical burns. Teens working long hours into the night, then struggling to stay awake in class—if they make it to school at all. Many associate these images with cocoa fields or cobalt mines in the developing world, not in American factories or meatpacking plants. But over the past several weeks, it has become impossible to ignore that hidden child labor can make U.S. brands complicit—even inadvertently—in the heartrending exploitation of our youth.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that up to 160 million children are engaged in child labor—meaning they are below the age of 18 and are working in jobs outside the family business. Child laborers also are unlikely to be in school, a situation that perpetuates the cycle of poverty that drove them to work in the first place.
We lead organizations dedicated to eradicating child labor in the United States and in global supply chains. We know that addressing child labor is not simple; the root causes are varied and complex. But we do know this: with the right resources, companies can reduce the risks of child labor or even eliminate them entirely.
Good laws that protect children are the starting point. They must be in line with ILO conventions, and they must be rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, most countries struggle to enforce any labor laws effectively; child labor laws are no exception. Even in the United States, laws protecting child laborers are limited. For example, in some states, children as young as 12 can legally work as farm laborers with minimal protections.
That means the actual line of responsibility lies with the employer. Companies of all sizes, in all countries, must make a public commitment to stop child labor, embed that commitment into their business operations, and take proactive steps to ensure no children are exploited in their supply chains.
How does this happen? First, companies must develop and publicly communicate a commitment to ending child labor and implement a clear company code of conduct applicable to all employees and business partners.
Second, companies must understand the risks of child labor in their own operations and in all tiers of their supply chains. Child labor risks differ by industry—the stakes for agriculture are not necessarily the same as the risks for manufacturing. Mapping risks and consistently monitoring for changes in those risks over time will ensure companies can appropriately mitigate those risks. For example, suppose more children will likely appear in the fields during the summer. In that case, companies can employ more robust screening methods during that time and ensure recruiters are properly trained to identify potential child laborers.
Third, companies must also provide consistent and ongoing training and communication about their zero-tolerance policies toward child labor and ensure that expectations are clear among employees and supply chain partners.
Finally, if a company does identify child labor in its supply chain, it must act immediately to protect the children. Children are in a vulnerable position and should be referred to appropriate social service agencies that can ensure the children are properly compensated, provided with the opportunity to return to school, or have access to other crucial support.
Now more than ever, we need everyone—from the CEO to the local hiring manager—to join us and take responsibility for protecting children. Children belong in school, not working long hours in factories and on farms. Their future, and ours, depends on it.
Sharon Waxman is president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which brings together companies, universities, and civil society organizations to ensure children aren’t exploited in supply chains around the world. Learn more about FLA’s work to eradicate child labor at https://www.fairlabor.org/issues/child-labor/.
Sally Greenberg is the executive director of the National Consumers League, home to the Child Labor Coalition, which works to stamp out the worst forms of child labor and to protect teen workers from health and safety hazards.