Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Craig Kielburger

June 12 is World Day Against Child Labor. This is the first in a series of articles exploring the state of child labor today.

As a moral issue, child labor seems straightforward. No one should spend their childhood in a factory, churning out carpets or t-shirts. But from both the business and development perspectives, solutions are less straightforward. It’s not as simple as pulling kids out of supply chains.

Today, 218 million children and youth around the world are working instead of going to school. Almost half are involved in the worst forms of labor, bound in slavery or employed in dangerous occupations like mining.

For the last 25 years, my colleagues and I have been working to help end child labor, first through factory raids and then through development work. My early lessons have led to a lifelong journey of continuous learning. But now more than ever, I see the potential for massive change. In fact, I believe child labor can be eliminated in our lifetime.

Market forces and new technology have put the goal within reach. However, we risk severe economic consequences for impoverished families when children stop working. That’s why companies alone can’t solve the problem, and neither can charities. Ending child labor requires cross-sector collaboration; there’s no permanent solution without cooperation.

Factory Raids And Hard-Won Truths

At just 12 years old, I was outraged at news reports about a child slave who was murdered in Pakistan. I later started a children’s charity with my older brother after I took a research trip to South Asia. I joined teams in India and Pakistan that conducted raids, kicking down factory doors to rescue children and take them home. In some cases, the same children were “rescued” again and again, having been sold back into bonded labor by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them.

We shifted tactics and began building schools for kids and income-generating opportunities for their parents. We focused on holistic solutions to address the root causes of poverty that make child labor an appealing choice in the first place.

In the areas where we worked, fewer families were driven to send their kids into servitude. But that’s only half of the solution. Poverty reduction lowers the supply of working children, but not the demand for them.

The Changing Ethics Of Demand

The demand for child labor is obvious. Cheap labor reduces overhead, consumer costs and profit margins. But now, savvy companies, from clothing manufacturers to chocolate makers, are driving ethical supply chains to meet consumer demands for social responsibility.

Recent technology makes it far less challenging than it used to be to trace every component of a product back to its origins. Given the complexity of recent gadgets, especially cell phones that use rare minerals, this can be complicated. But tamper-proof “blockchain” database platforms such as Tracr enable companies to track every transaction in their supply chains. Communications platforms such as Ulula empower employees at every stage of production to anonymously report issues using mobile technology. Adidas, for example, is piloting a mobile reporting app in its Chinese factories as part of its monitoring efforts.

But even if all companies succeed in purging their supply chains, what happens to underage laborers? Families lose a vital source of income, and children could be worse off, sent to black market labor or the sex trade.

From Supply Chains To Sustainable Development

Just like our charity couldn’t stop child labor by kicking down doors, companies can’t end it just by cleaning up supply chains. To have a real impact, companies need to address the root cause, which is desperate poverty. Companies must take responsibility for the welfare of the communities where their suppliers are located.

I’m not suggesting that all businesses start charities. But in accordance with Goal 17 of the UN's sustainable development goals, "Partnerships for the Goals," for-profits can and should work with development organizations, pooling respective talents, resources and networks. There’s a host of opportunities for successful cross-sector marriages.

In Bangladesh, Bata Shoes partnered with the UN and international nonprofits such as CARE on the Rural Sales Program, creating economic opportunities for women. Participants were taught entrepreneurial skills, like basic accounting, to operate small businesses, selling household items like toiletries and low-cost shoes produced by the local Bata plant. In an area where incomes can be as low as $32 a month, Bata’s 2,000 female entrepreneurs were bringing home $80 to $120.

Additionally, Unilever joined forces with Oxfam to teach farming and business skills to 1,300 women in southern Thailand. Unilever also worked with us at ME to WE Foundation to implement financial literacy training for 80,000 women harvesting tea in Kenya.

What makes for an effective partnership? Ensure your business partner has demonstrated its commitment to good corporate citizenship. Help your partner create buy-in across the business by engaging its employees in your work. And be transparent with your donors. For instance, our charity's sister organization, ME to WE Social Enterprise, achieved more donor transparency with a system called “Track Your Impact.” Along with our retail partners, ME to WE Social Enterprise developed a coding system, attached to product labels, that allows consumers to visually track the social impact of their purchases online -- to see pictures of the village where partial sales proceeds were donated and to locate it on a map.

Remember that it's really a three-way partnership with your organization, your business partner and the people you’re helping. One thing I’ve learned above all else is to be sustainable; communities must be leaders in their own development. Finally, focus on capacity-building. To a donor or partner, teaching bookkeeping to a female entrepreneur may not look as appealing on paper as building a school or digging a well. But remind them that fostering these skills will ensure the long-term effectiveness of your efforts.

We know how to end child labor, and we have the means to do so in our lifetime. First, we need to anticipate the consequences for business and for development. Both sectors need to prepare, and they need to do it together.

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