In line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) as well as the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), “and the ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138), a child is a person below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.
While children are one third of the world’s population and, thus, play a significant role in the global economy – as consumers, young workers (see: ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), family members of workers, future workers or employers, as well as members of the communities and environments in which business operates – they are also one of the most vulnerable groups exposed to negative impacts from business. As stated by the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie, “[c]hildren are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society and can be disproportionately, severely, and permanently impacted by business activities, operations, and relationships”.
Businesses can impact the rights of children in various ways. Adverse impacts on children’s rights may be linked to, for example, marketing (e.g. advertisements promoting ‘unrealistic body images that can lead to eating disorders; promotion of breast milk substitutes for babies under the age of 6 months), distribution of products (e.g. violent computer games, gender-specific toys that influence perception of male/female roles), environmental and land impacts (affecting the ability of local communities s to sustain themselves, as well as affecting their health and right to food and water, which disproportionately impact on children). Where companies pay insufficient wages to sustain families, the right to education of children may be affected, with children dropping out of school and going to work to help supplement family income.
According to the ILO’s Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and trends, 2012-2016:
- Worldwide 218 million children between 5 and 17 years are in employment.
Among them, 152 million are victims of child labour; almost half of them, 73 million, work in hazardous child labour.
- In absolute terms, almost half of child labour (72.1 million) is to be found in Africa; 62.1 million in the Asia and the Pacific; 10.7 million in the Americas; 1.2 million in the Arab States and 5.5 million in Europe and Central Asia.
- In terms of prevalence, 1 in 5 children in Africa (19.6%) are in child labour, whilst prevalence in other regions is between 3% and 7%: 2.9% in the Arab States (1 in 35 children); 4.1% in Europe and Central Asia (1 in 25); 5.3%in the Americas (1 in 19) and 7.4% in Asia and the Pacific region (1 in 14).
- Almost half of all 152 million children victims of child labour are aged 5-11 years.
42 million (28%) are 12-14 years old; and 37 million (24%) are 15-17 years old.
- Hazardous child labour is most prevalent among the 15-17 years old. Nevertheless up to a fourth of all hazardous child labour (19 million) is done by children less than 12 years old.
- Among 152 million children in child labour, 88 million are boys and 64 million are girls.
- 58% of all children in child labour and 62% of all children in hazardous work are boys. Boys appear to face a greater risk of child labour than girls, but this may also be a reflection of an under-reporting of girls’ work, particularly in domestic child labour.
- Child labour is concentrated primarily in agriculture (71%), which includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture, and comprises both subsistence and commercial farming; 17% in Services; and 12% in the Industrial sector, including mining.
In 2013, The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted General Comment 16 on State obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights. The General Comment includes guidance on the measures of implementation that are required to prevent and remedy violations of child rights by businesses, and ensure businesses carry out their responsibilities in the realisation of the rights of the child and encourage them to positively contribute to the realisation of these rights. Further guidance material has since been developed to advise governments on how to ensure that all business activities respect children’s rights. A useful guide for States on how to implement UN CRC General Comment 16 was published by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and UNICEF in 2015.
The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and UNICEF developed the Children’s Rights in NAPs on Business and Human Rights, as guidance on how children’s rights should be considered in the process of developing NAPs.
An example of government efforts in this area is the US Executive Order 13126 on the “Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” (1999). This requires federal contractors who supply products on The List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor published by the Department of Labor to certify that they have made good faith efforts to determine whether forced or indentured child labour was used to produce the items listed.
Another example is the Dutch ‘Child Labour Due Diligence Law’, which was adopted by the lower house of the Dutch Parliament in 2017. The law will require companies to determine whether child labour exists in their supply chains and set out a plan of action on how to combat it. This law is awaiting approval by the Senate. If approved, companies covered by the law will have to submit a statement to regulatory authorities declaring that they have carried out due diligence related to child labour in their full supply chains.
Interesting examples of national implementation of the World Health Organization (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes through legislation regulating a range of marketing practices by the private sector are provided in an annual status report. For example, Norway are consulting children when developing a national policy on healthy diets.
Children’s rights are reflected across the 2030 Agenda. Whereas a number of goals – including good health and well-being (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) and peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16) are of heightened importance for the rights of children, issues of critical importance for children are also cross-cutting. SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (Zero hunger), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 11 (sustainable cities) contain targets with explicit references to children. Further, SDGs 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities) are also of direct relevance as they reflect principles of equality and non-discrimination that are cross-cutting for the 2030 Agenda.
Across all these goals, there are specific targets or indicators that make reference to children in a specific manner, or require disaggregation of data to measure progress by, among other things, age.
Business’ contribution to many of these goals/sectors is significant. Given that 92% of SDG targets reflect specific provisions of international and regional human rights and labour law, the UNGPs can provide a baseline standard of expected conduct for all businesses in all these areas, thus ensuring that responsible business respects human rights but also, through this, makes a more effective contribution to SDG realisation.