The Cheat Sheet

Your fancy phone may be a product of child labour

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on December 05, 2019

What? Really? Says who?

Well, I hope your concerns are genuine because the involvement of child labour in global supply chain systems is one of the closely guarded dirty secrets of the industry, and several international agencies have time and again pointed it out, calling for corrective measures. The latest attempt comes from a study jointly authored by agencies such as the UN’s labour agency ILO, OECD, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNICEF under the aegis of Alliance 8.7.

Alliance 8.7?

Well, for starters, this is a global collective of governments, thinktanks, individuals and other interested parties that aims to build a world without forced labour, slavery, human trafficking, etc. The group works towards creating policies and actions that can help make achievable target 8.7 of UN’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

What does it say?

Mainly, it calls for eradicating forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. It encourages research, data collection and knowledge-sharing to make these goals workable. It also involves driving innovation and leveraging resources towards this end.

Interesting, now what about the report we’re talking about?

Just a few days ago, the Alliance 8.7 released a detailed report — Ending child labour, forced labour and human trafficking in global supply chains — highlighting some disturbing truths about the way such big companies and networks function. The report says that even though global supply chains have immense potential to generate growth, jobs, skill development and technological transfer, they are linked to human rights violations and abuses. And using child labour is one of the major crimes of the industry.

Forgive my ignorance, what do you really mean by ‘global supply chains’?

Simply put, a supply chain is a network of companies, big and small. They dot the long chain of production of goods. They come between a manufacturer and its suppliers as it produces and distributes products -- from phones and other fancy gadgets to clothes and cars. Now, the allegation is they employ illegal child labour in producing or moving these goods and get away unpunished thanks to their collective might and ability to exploit loopholes in global regulatory systems.

That’s alarming.

According to the UN agencies, currently, some 218 million children (of age 5-17) are forced to work across the globe. Of these, 152 million are victims of child labour, and half of them work in dangerous fields, such as mining, recycling, metal breaking and works that involve toxic materials.

Oh dear!

The UN has released some startling numbers on this. Nearly half the child workers (that’s over 72 million) are in Africa. More than 62 million are found in Asia Pacific. The Americas have nearly 11 million, while the Arab states have 1.2 million. Some 5.5 million child labourers are found in Europe and Central Asia.

That means, one in five children in Africa (nearly 20 per cent) are in child labour, according to the ILO. The ratio is 2.9 per cent in the Arab States (1 in 35 children); 4.1 per cent in Europe and Central Asia (1 in 25); 5.3 per cent in the Americas (1 in 19) and 7.4 per cent in Asia Pacific (1 in 14).

Mind-numbing numbers...

There’s more: Almost half of all the victims of child labour are aged 5-11 years; 42 million (28 per cent) are aged 12-14, and 37 million (24 per cent) are 15-17 years old. Of these, the 15-17 years old are more prone to be working in dangerous sectors. Agriculture sees the most number of child labourers (71 per cent). This includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture. The service sector has 17 per cent of child workers and the industrial sector, including mining, 12 per cent.

Now, tell me what needs to be done to check this?

The report from the international bodies has given fresh estimates on child labour and trafficking for forced labour in global supply chains. The report says that the estimated share of total child labour found in global supply chains ranges from 9 per cent in northern Africa and western Asia to 26 per cent in eastern and southeastern Asia. Across regions, between 28 and 43 per cent of this child labour in global supply chains occurs in what is called “upstream segments”. To tackle this menace, the report calls for public governance measures to regulate how these companies do their business and audit the environment in which their workers function.


Scrutinising their business models, approaches, human rights records, calling for more transparency and inclusiveness in business is also suggested. Holding the global supply chains accountable for their misgivings is just a start. Child labour mitigation is a long process that requires participation from the civil society as well, where consumers demand more clarity in the way the products they use are made. So, next time you buy a fancy smartphone, just send an e-mail to the maker asking how it was made.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on December 05, 2019

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