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Technology can power corporate action on child labour

Farid Baddache
Corporates need to address the menace of child labour in their supply chains, which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic – and new technologies could prove useful in the fight against child labour
CEO at Ksapa
A child is carrying a plastic jerry can filled with water on his head with another child following close by somewhere in Africa

A recent study estimated 1.6 million children work in cocoa-producing Ivory Coast and Ghana. In other words, children as young as five partake in hazardous weeding and harvesting activities on every other cocoa farm.

Despite decades of responsible procurement reforms, child labour remains a daily occurrence across global supply chains serving leading corporations. With COVID-19 pushing as many as 100 million into extreme poverty, households will likely resort to child labour that much more. This likely weighed heavily on the UN General Assembly’s decision to declare 2021 as the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. 

We could, however, be nearing a turning point as digital transformations provide disruptive solutions to address and mitigate child labour. This time with rapidity, scale and impact.

Four hotspots for child labour in the supply chain

Technological advances increasingly make supply chain monitoring both a comprehensive and competitive proposition. As digital transformations shape automated procurement practices and client interactions, they also challenge procurement managers. To address stakeholder expectations that child labour be effectively banned, businesses must find new solutions to counter issues of diluted responsibilities and insufficient resources.

There is inherent complexity to tackling a sensitive issue like child labour across global and fragmented supply chains. But there is also ample reason to invest in technologies and be optimistic in their capacity to genuinely address child labour.

For the time being, however, the following four areas are often insufficiently managed, harbouring child labour across all categories:

Risk assessment. Companies rely on audits to identify and remedy instances of child labour in their supply chains. Buyers, however, need more accurate and granular data. They also need that information at scale, which audits seldom provide. Meanwhile, procurement teams are chronically understaffed and underfunded, where fighting child labour demands more time to better engage suppliers and more tools to manage its complexities.

Transparency. Though most firms have integrated child labour risks well beyond their direct operations, or even their Tier-1 suppliers, few enjoy tangible influence beyond that. Supply chain entities similarly lack visibility beyond their immediate relationships, particularly relating to sensitive issues like child labour. 

Grievance mechanisms. More than any other type of supply chain player, children seldom know their rights or what international standards and corporate commitments might regard as illegal labour or hazardous working conditions. They are not specifically targeted by grievance mechanisms either, nor are they given other means to flag their concerns.

Training. Children are least likely to understand safety risks or productivity methods. They often pitch in for their families and are therefore wholly overlooked in corporate safety protocols, training or engagement programmes. It is indeed more difficult to address child labour and working conditions as entire communities must access the knowhow and financial means not to employ children. 

However, encouraging, channelling new technologies costs money. The process is also demanding and time-consuming, particularly as poor data could make or break their activation. There is also inherent complexity to tackling a sensitive issue like child labour across global and fragmented supply chains. But there is also ample reason to invest in technologies and be optimistic in their capacity to genuinely address child labour.

Promising technologies to scale impact against child labour

Rapid technological advances come with a cohort of key surveillance and data privacy concerns, in addition to the added cost of technological equipment and energy consumption for low-income populations. COVID-19 further exposed the global digital divide, as 55% of households globally enjoy an internet connection, a number that falls to just 19% in the least developed countries.

Despite decades of responsible procurement reforms, child labour remains a daily occurrence across global supply chains serving leading corporations. With COVID-19 pushing as many as 100 million into extreme poverty, households will likely resort to child labour that much more.

Technologies nevertheless benefit from a conducive environment overall, including among workers and farmers where they are most needed to address child labour and more broadly, improve working conditions on the ground.

Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) back risk assessments. Materiality assessments allow teams to focus on their most sensitive categories, structure sampling approaches and document child labour. AI additionally offers a traceability solution to manage large volumes of potentially sensitive transactions. By embedding contextual data and not just social performance indicators, AI supports more granular risk assessments. Combined with machine learning, it introduces more predictability in sampling efforts, to identify at-risk suppliers for targeted audits and cost-effective redirect efforts.

Blockchains nurture transparency. Through distributed ledgers, procurement teams can document specific supply chains prone to child labour allegations. Various initiatives in the fragrance sector notably seek to directly connect smallholders and buyers. By reducing intermediations, blockchains boost traceability, thereby improving living wages, which is a prime solution to address the root causes of child labour.

Smartphones enhance grievance mechanisms. Thanks to the massive adoption of smartphones down to the most remote areas, companies can distribute questionnaires to document instances of child labour across their supply chain. This is a cost-effective solution to collect scalable sources of data and build socio-environmental risk profiles. This technology can likewise kickstart corporate grievance mechanisms for workers to flag instances of child labour. Combined with blockchain technology, smartphones could indeed improve the coverage and confidentiality in grievance mechanism management.

Augmented reality improves vocational training. Supply chain workers generally lack access to vocational training, directly impacting their safety, productivity and income – all key considerations in fighting child labour. A key issue lies in providing topical training in a cost-effective and scalable manner. As such, smartphones mainstream access to training materials. Beyond videos, pictures and slides, harnessing AR or VR technology could dovetail day-to-day field practices and ease knowledge transfer in very concrete terms.

Scalable tech solutions to address child labour

Making the most of digital solutions and technologies will no doubt pave the way toward effectively addressing child labour and its root causes on the ground.

Big changes are underway and will shape supply chain progress in years to come. As we gear up to #BuildBackBetter, action against child labour cannot come soon enough.

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CEO at Ksapa

Farid Baddache leads the consulting and advocacy activities of Ksapa, leveraging environmental, social and ethical performance to innovate and improve competitiveness of business operations. He also takes part in the impact investment activities, on subjects such as relations with industrial companies and programme design.

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