Getting child labor out of supply chains

Ten percent of the world’s children — 152 million — are used as laborers. Half of those children perform hazardous tasks such as spraying pesticides, descending into mine shafts and diving underwater to untangle fishing nets.

Those grim statistics are reported by the U.S. Department of Labor in its assessment of the state of child labor in 135 countries.

Two boys working at sewing machines (© Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Children often are forced to do menial, unskilled tasks. But these boys are studying tailoring at a center in India so they can support themselves later. (© Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“These practices create not only human rights abuses, but they create an uneven playing field, making it hard for businesses that play by the rules to compete. A country’s failure to stop the exploitation of its labor force undermines the well-being of American workers and other workers around the world,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta writes in his foreword to the report.

An important step in fighting child labor is identifying its role in the supply chains that start in fields where crops are grown or commercial vessels where fish are caught and continues through small subcontracted sweatshops where textiles are processed. The chain often ends with unwitting consumers buying goods that are produced by children.

President Trump’s 2017 National Trade Policy Agenda includes “enforcing labor provisions in existing [trade] agreements and enforcing the prohibition against the importation and sale of goods made with forced labor.”

Children sitting on rug under makeshift structure (© Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images)
Schools can be safe havens for children escaping exploitation. (© Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Two U.S. groups are working to end child labor by cleaning up global supply chains from the top down and the bottom up.

California-based nonprofit Made In A Free World developed software to measure the risk of forced labor, including forced child labor, in company supply chains. The software collects data about a product (how it is made, its component parts), global trade-flow data and data on forced labor in every industry around the world. That data is combined to give a company its risk rating.

This rating lets companies make informed decisions about their suppliers to minimize the chance that their goods are produced by children or others forced to work for no or little pay.

Child peering out from behind rug on loom (© Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)
A young boy weaves a carpet for the international market from a factory in India. (© Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

If they do detect a problem, “we encourage companies to work with suppliers to correct problems, because that’s how we can create change.” says Adeline Lambert, director of analytics for Made In A Free World.

GoodWeave, a nonprofit specializing in India’s carpet industry, follows a company’s supply chain down to the final link. Its auditors go to communities where children do work given to them by other subcontractors who are often several contracts removed from the original supplier’s factory.

“It’s very hard for a company or brand to know what’s happening in their supply chains once you get past the factories,” says Biko Nagara of GoodWeave. “We focus on these remote areas where it’s likely to happen.”

GoodWeave says child labor is often a result of community problems, like limited educational and work opportunities. The nonprofit enrolls at-risk children in school and conducts adult job placement training so parents have decent work.

Reid Maik of the Child Labor Coalition, a group of organizations dedicated to ending child labor, says consumers can influence companies to monitor their supply chains and stop child labor.

“Talk to companies that you like and ask them about their policies to reduce child labor,” he says. “If enough consumers asked companies about this, then they would be more robust in their response.”

ShareAmerica writer Mark Trainer contributed to this article.