The Indian government has recently brought in changes to the Child Labour Act and decided to allow children below the age of 14 to work in selected non-hazardous family industries. The international community promptly expressed its concerns that child labour might become standard practice in sectors where it is traditionally difficult to tackle
The US Department of Labor reported that children in India continue to “engage in child labor in agriculture and in the worst forms of child labor in the manufacturing of a number of products in the informal economy. Basic legal protections for children remain weak”. The term ‘worst forms of child labour’ is defined by the ILO Convention 182 and it refers to work which deprives children of their childhood, that interferes with their school attendance, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. According to the US department’s report 69.5% of children aged between 5 and 14 are still in employment in India and they work in houses, agriculture, and activities such as begging and brick making. India also remains a transit as well as a destination country for minors who are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour.
As changes are applied to the Child Act, many companies in the garment and footwear sector will certainly face greater challenges when trying to ensure their supply chains remain child labour free. According to the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor produced by the US department, children in India continue being engaged in the manufacturing of goods, several operate in the informal economy and increasingly in home-based production which makes it harder to monitor and ensure they operate in line with health and safety principles. Children in India are still engaged in hazardous work in agriculture, footwear, carpet weaving and garments industries
We all remember the massive campaign against Nike, Levis and GAP that revealed terrible working conditions in many countries and especially India. Globalisation has inevitably shaped new supply chains and companies source through suppliers who are geographically distant and who do not directly control production themselves. In many European and American countries where production, distribution, retail and consumption of production is managed, companies will now face a greater challenge when sourcing cotton or other commodities from India.
At a time when many companies have begun working towards a more balanced process in creating value and have acknowledged the need to monitor their supply chains to ensure labour rights are protected, the government of India has relaxed the Child Labour Act instead of building the momentum.
Meanwhile in Europe we have seen progressive pressure on companies to disclose their policies, risks and respect towards human rights. In 2014 the EU passed the Non-Financial Reporting Directive which “requires companies concerned to disclose in their management report, information on policies, risks and outcomes as regards environmental matters, social and employee aspects, respect for human rights, anticorruption and bribery issues, and diversity in their board of directors”. Most recently, the UK passed the Slavery Act 2015 which calls on companies to prepare a human trafficking statement and provide evidence that trafficking is not taking place in their supply chains or any part of their business. Many European garment companies operate in this legal framework whereby on one side they are called for transparency and respect for human rights, while one the other side part of their supply chain will be placed in a country where child labour is permitted and endorsed.
In this two-headed legal framework it is no secret that companies will be monitored even more closely and they will face a greater need to engage with key stakeholders along their supply chains to minimise reputational and legal risks. However, without key leadership and government policies being put in place to tackle child labour, will ethical business be possible?