Beating child labour

The Gap (and lots of other Western businesses) have invested a lot of money in systems to monitor supplier labour practices because they don’t like to be thought of as ‘the child labour people’ (at The Gap they employ 90 people for this purpose and fired 23 suppliers last year for failure to comply). It’s not working, though. Child labour is pervasive and resilient: kids are still in the labour market in their millions and many of them serve Western consumers directly.

Some communities are tolerant of child labour and others have had it forced on them by economic collapse and by the pressures of demand from wealthy economies. A long period of prosperity in the Western economies hasn’t helped: that giant sucking sound is ballooning demand for more and cheaper goods from millions of Western consumers. Manufacturing in developing countries will continue to draw children into work in their thousands because the demand for what they make is unending.

The Gap, Nike and the other businesses who’ve invested millions in supply chain monitoring methods should get together and develop a joint public platform for the suppression of labour market nasties. I’d like them to publish the techniques they’ve developed as the equivalent of open source utilities for policing labour markets. Big businesses have invested in techniques, analytical frameworks, surveillance methods, education and empowerment schemes.

They should package these resources in toolsets for use by others. Everything from Powerpoint presentations in local languages to auditing frameworks, model contracts, supplier incentives and specialist databases. Downloadable, shareable and adaptable resources would spread good practice more quickly and get smaller businesses involved earlier.

If the big firms share the results of their huge defensive investment in anti-child labour measures with other businesses in the supply chain, knowledge and ideas will spread more quickly, small firms who couldn’t historically do formal supply chain monitoring will be able to piggyback the big firms’ investment, spreading resistance to child labour more widely. Exemplary, activist businesses will get a chance to sell their methods to less engaged firms, to explain why it’s important to kick child labour into touch. The effect would be an improved reputation for the whole sector and many more kids kept out of the economy for longer.