Children

Children’s Rights and Business – Stuck in the “Too Difficult” Box?

31 July 2018

By Charlotte Williams, Head of Child Rights and Business – Unicef UK

Businesses impact on the lives of children in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

Children are consumers of products and services, they are dependents of workers, and they might be young workers themselves or, at least, will be future workers and business leaders.

They are also members of the communities in which businesses operate, and are therefore coming into contact with the private sector as they go about their day-to-day lives.

Businesses often put children’s rights into the “too difficult box” and close the lid because they don’t know how to start identifying them, let alone address them. 

Examples of Business Impacts

Business can play a really positive role in the lives of children.

Many children around the world benefit from corporate innovation, remittances and new products.

However businesses can also adversely impact children’s rights. While some adverse business impacts on children are well documented, such as cases of child labour in cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire or mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many others are hidden, unrecognised and unspoken.

Children often lack a prominent voice to tell us about their experiences, and they are rarely consulted when businesses take decisions that affect them directly – for example, when private companies acquire community land, or when a mother has to return from maternity leave after just a few weeks or face losing her job. 

A key part of UNICEF’s mandate is to ensure that the voices of these children are heard, and that businesses are better equiped to hear them and respond to the challenges they raise. UNICEF does this through consultations with children, their parents and wider community members about their experiences of business.

A seven year old child, the son of a factory worker in Bangladesh, (survey 2015) told us he was thankful to the garment sector for giving his mother a job. He knew that his mother’s hard work at the factory meant she had money to buy him food and clothes. However, he also recognised the trade off this involved, that she needed to work long hours in order to provide for him. He told us, “My mother works really hard all day long, and I miss her the whole day. Even though she wants to give me time, she cannot.”

Many adverse business impacts on children are hidden, unrecognised, and unspoken.

Other workers interviewed as part of an assessment into children’s rights in the palm oil sector (2016) spoke of having to leave children with grandparents because they lack the means to provide for them properly, and were unable to access childcare and educational services near their work.

In Mexico (2017), we spoke to children who have lost access to public beaches where they used to play due to restrictions by large hotels catering to international tourists. We’ve also documented that when children are exposed to aerial spraying of pesticides, they will inhale double the amount of pesticide that an average adult would, leading to an increased risk of a range of health issues.

These examples are serious violations of child rights - to be cared for by their family, to play, to education, and to adequate healthcare.

What's Actually Expected of Business? 

The systemic nature of these issues however, are hard to identify and address.

Many businesses are still heavily reliant on social compliance audits, which can only give a snap-shot in time of a business’ operations and their impact, and rarely engage directly in stakeholder consultation to get a full understanding of the impact their businesses are having on the local community.

It’s no surprise therefore that most companies have yet to recognise their impacts on children, with the possible exception of addressing and remediating high profile instances of child labour that are also more likely to threaten corporate reputations. The underlying drivers for child labour, such a low household income or access to education remain, as do many of the other systemic challenges requiring coordinated action and partnership between policy makers, the private sector and civil society.

It’s no surprise that most companies have yet to recognise their impacts on children, with the possible exception of addressing and remediating high profile instances of child labour that are also more likely to threaten corporate reputations.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) identify children, alongside indigenous people, women and migrant workers (among others), as a particularly vulnerable group of rights holders, who may require particular attention from business as part of their human rights due diligence responsibilities. This puts an obligation on businesses to ‘go beyond compliance audits’ and to carry out comprehensive impact assessments which integrate a consideration for children’s rights, as well as other vulnerable stakeholders.

This is not easy and businesses aren’t always resourced to carry out this sort of due diligence.

The Tools Exist

UNICEF has been developing a number of practical tools to support businesses.

Most recently, UNICEF has published a child safeguarding toolkit (2018) to guide businesses through the process of risk assessment, gap analysis and developing an implementation plan to prevent child safeguarding risks arising. The toolkit includes a number of templates and checklists to make this process as accessible and as easy for businesses as possible.

We have also just relaunched the Children’s Rights and Business Atlas tool – an interactive online platform which helps businesses and industry to assess actual and potential impacts on the lives of children, and guides the integration of children’s rights into due diligence practices and procedures. The Atlas tool provides a holistic assessment of potential rights violations in the workplace, the community, and in the marketplace and offers both a country and industry level overview. Companies are then able to prioritise areas for heightened due diligence, based on their most salient risks, and most severe impacts on children’s rights.

Significant progress could be made by businesses taking just three initial steps.

This approach is in line with the requirements of the UNGPs to pay particular attention to vulnerable groups of rights holders, and the Children’s Rights and Business Principles which is the first global children’s rights standard. Identifying and addressing adverse business impacts on children’s rights is challenging, but failure to do this will mean that children continue to face severe violations of their rights. 

Significant progress could be made by businesses taking just three initial steps:

These initial steps will allow businesses to begin to understand and address some of their most salient human rights impacts in a way that is manageable, although sustainable solutions are likely to remain challenging without the support and partnership of policy makers and civil society.

Businesses often put children’s rights into the “too difficult box” and close the lid because they don’t know how to start identifying them, let alone address them.

The Children’s Rights and Business Principles, together with these tools, give business a framework they can use to start to engage with the problem, rather than just ignoring it and hoping that a media crisis never comes along that will force them to respond unprepared and in the moment. 

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