Children’s rights: Business as usual?
Monday 19 March 2012
I thought the launch event for the principles went off very well.
My highlights from the opening session were a video message from Ban Ki Moon, who specifically mentioned links between the principles and the UN’s Every Woman Every Child strategy, and Georg Kell from the UN Global Compact agreeing that regulation of business plays an important role alongside voluntary initiatives like these principles.
The view from China
There was an attempt to engage businesses beyond the ‘usual suspects’ at European corporate social responsibility (CSR) events. For example, Sun Ruizhe from the China National Textile and Apparel Council talked about initiatives it is promoting to support young/adolescent workers, including schemes linking factories to universities to provide further education opportunities, successor policies to create advancement opportunities for young people, and workplace symposiums to bring out the voices of young workers.
The links between child labour and tax
The presentation by Simon Steyne from the ILO/IPEC made the point that child labour is now really a problem of the informal economy, often buried deep within supply chains, and that addressing it will mean getting at the root causes of why children end up in work. He specifically mentioned the important role that tax plays in enabling governments to fulfil their duties to children, and the important role that business plays in contributing to this tax base.
Not at the expense of children today
Else Hovind Hendel from Norges Bank spoke very eloquently about why it, as an investor, is interested in children’s rights. For Norges Bank this is very much driven by business priorities: poor business standards and poor health impacts threaten the long-term sustainability of its fund.
Child labour has an impact on wider labour market dynamics: how businesses manage their impact on children’s rights points to how they manage risks as a whole.
I liked her idea of safeguarding assets for future generations, and not doing this at the expense of children today.
What came out very strongly from all of the company presentations is the important role that values play in the extent to which companies get involved in these types of initiatives. Ikea spoke convincingly about how it thinks about children in all parts of its operations: from how its products and stores are designed, right down to supporting people who grow their cotton, including supporting factories to reduce working hours .
Principles with “teeth”
But the importance that values play in initiatives like the Children’s Rights and Business Principles gets to the root of the niggling concern I have about them: there are very many companies that don’t have the values of respecting and supporting children’s rights embedded so deeply throughout their organisations.
But what about those companies that don’t see the importance of children’s rights? The success of these principles is based on the individual will of companies to act.
I agree with Human Rights Watch writing for the Guardian that there should be more discussion about how we can encourage independent monitoring and public reporting of the human rights impact of business.