Millions of people globally are in forced labour and/or child labour, and the number is growing. Such practices violate human rights and can cause significant physical and mental damage, as well as harming the development of individuals and societies alike. Companies have a responsibility to respect labour rights and ensure that they don’t use or contribute to child labour or forced labour.
Labour rights are both legal rights and human rights relating to labour relations between workers and employers. They are part of international law and enshrined in various types of international agreements such as ILO (International Labour Organization) conventions. Eradicating forced labour and child labour are also included in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)1.
Yet, as of 2020, the ILO and UNICEF estimated that 160 million children – accounting for almost 10% of children worldwide – were in child labour. This had increased by 8.4 million in four years. The number of adults in forced labour is growing too, and according to the 2022 estimations there were 27.6 million people worldwide in forced labour, including 17.3 million in the private sector2.
Child labour and forced labour can be found all over the world, but are particularly prevalent in certain industries and regions. Companies may be exposed directly or via their supply chains. Identifying, mitigating and eliminating negative impacts on human rights, particularly with respect to vulnerable groups, is fundamental to responsible business conduct. The Council on Ethics opposes labour exploitation and engages on child labour and forced labour with individual companies as well as proactively on sector-level to effect systemic change.
How does the Council on Ethics work with child labour and forced labour?
The Council on Ethics expects companies to respect human rights, including labour rights, and to work actively to implement the UNGP. This means that they should integrate respect for human rights in their activities, policies, strategy and risk management, as well as to transparently report about its related efforts. The Council also expects companies to act in line with the ILO Core conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Council’s company-specific dialogues on child and forced labour breaches, as part of the reactive engagement work, include explicit expectations also for forward-looking measures and encourage multi-stakeholder cooperation to address the root causes. In addition, the Council participates in a three-year collaborative engagement project on modern slavery within the textile- and construction industries. Analysis and discussions are ongoing to establish further opportunities for proactive engagement addressing both child labour and forced labour.
1SDG 8.7 calls for “immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”
2International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free, and International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2022) Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/publications/WCMS_854733/lang–en/index.htm