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168 million children are in child labour around the world, with almost half engaged in hazardous work. The forces driving child labour are complex and wide-ranging, from criminal intent, to economic necessity, to cultural norms. So how realistic is SDG Target 8.7 that aims to end child labour in all its forms by 2025? We speak with international lawyer Brynn O’Brien about the difficulties involved with regulating child labour and how it fits into structural problems in the global economic system.



Brynn O’Brien is an international lawyer and researcher in the area of business and human rights. She started her career as a corporate lawyer and then went on to practise human rights law, representing refugees in Australia’s detention centres and people who had suffered human trafficking and severe exploitation in Australia. Now as Executive Director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, she holds Australia’s largest companies to account for their impacts on people and the environment.

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Driving prices down, demanding the most cheap labour can often see the most vulnerable people doing that labour.

Child labour does cause intergenerational poverty.

Big companies should be questioning why there's child labour in their supply chain. Why are they sourcing from populations that are so vulnerable in places where people don't have adequate legal protection?

It's not just about the child, it's about the future of that community or that country.

Up against having the economic means of survival, then people will do whatever it takes.

Is the eradication of child labour not the best solution? Is regulation a more realistic solution?

Shouldn't there be legal ramifications in Australia for using child labour?

We're going to see this transparency tsunami. Consumers will have a moment of saying, "Actually, we can't stand for this anymore, this is horrifying."

You're listening to Conversations in Development, a podcast about foreign aid, development, and social change. I'm Olivia Rosenman, and I'm here with Peter Mason, my co-host and the CEO of the international development agency, Cufa. Hi Peter.

Hello Olivia.

And in this episode, we're talking about child labour and supply chain ethics with Brynn O'Brien, the executive director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. Brynn is an international lawyer and researcher in the area of business and human rights, and she's here with us today to talk about how and why 168 million kids are working around the world and what can be done about it. Brynn, thank you so much for joining us on Conversations in Development.


Child labour can take many forms, from children in backbreaking work in gold mines, to children working shifts in a family shop. So is there a universally accepted definition of child labour?

So the layman's definition of child labour, or problematic child labour, is labour that deprives children of their childhood. So the ILO refers to child labour as, "The employment of children in work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that's mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous."

What about the situations though where income from labour might allow children to access education or healthcare, for example?

Yeah, as soon as we start opening the box of child work and child labour, we realise very quickly that it's an incredibly complicated and complex situation in many parts of the world, and that there are a number of different drivers of child labour, child work, that can't necessarily be fixed by an international law definition of it.

Is child labour always caused by poverty and poverty alone? Are there any situations where different social or cultural norms might lead to child labour? Is the idea of child labour as a purely negative thing a Western concept?

So child labour, I think, has a number of difference causes: they can be economic, they can be economic structural problems, and poverty is one of those things. Poverty can also be caused by, for example, discrimination. Discrimination against a certain ethnicity or a gender, that's just an example of it. There can be a strong cultural element in some parts of the world around child labour, especially where we see children doing work in the house, looking after younger siblings, which happens actually a lot in the Western world, as well as on family farms, agricultural work, helping with animals.

In fact, according to figures from the ILO, agriculture is the most important sector where child labourers can be found. So 98 million or 59% of children around the world in child labour are in agriculture, so I think that's a great point.

Even within that sector, I think it's important to note that there can be child labour that's culturally acceptable, or even culturally desirable, but then there can also be child labour that deprives children of childhood. So when we see children in, for example, supply chains of the big chocolate producers, that itself is not even necessarily an easy one to solve. I mean, I think big companies should be questioning why there's child labour in their supply chain. Why are they sourcing from populations that are so vulnerable in places where people don't have adequate legal protection or access to those components of a free childhood?

How does child labour differ from the employment of other vulnerable people?

Well I guess children have a really special set of rights and needs. They have developmental needs that can't necessarily be fulfilled if a child is in a rigorous work schedule, there's education needs. I think all human beings enjoy human rights equally, or should enjoy human rights equally, but some populations, like children, need extra protections in order to develop and to enjoy their human rights. So that's why we have this prohibition essentially against the worst forms of child labour.

I think also when you look at child labour in terms of the future of those communities, it's not just important for the child, but it's important for the economic development of that community into the future. I mean, child labour does cause intergenerational poverty, and so it's not just about the child, it's about the future of that community or that country.

Can you tell us a bit more about how child labour causes intergenerational poverty?

It's a complex equation, but simply put: if a child doesn't get education, or doesn't have educational opportunities available to it, then it's destined to do fairly low or unskilled work for the rest of its life. So therefore, the social mobility, or the economic mobility of that child as it progresses into adulthood, is going to be stunted. So their children are then going to have less opportunity into the future, and so forth it goes.

Cufa does a lot of work in developing countries helping families and small villages to establish businesses. I just wonder how aware is Cufa of the possibility or the potential of families with limited resources calling on their children to help in new businesses? Is that something that you're always on the lookout for?

The enterprises that we support are micro-enterprises; they're one person, or two people enterprises. So it's a business that the parent can do. The people that we tend to support, the village entrepreneurs that we support, tend to be what we call ultra-poor. They don't tend to have their own land, they'll be renting land. They have no assets, and this is a grand program, so it gives them enough money to get their business up and running, and they have up to three years to get that business to sustainability. There are indicators within that program to make sure that parents are sending their children to school. Yeah, so there's a number of conditions, and if they're having problems in terms of funding those things, then we assist.

Brynn, you brought up big business, the example of companies sourcing cocoa from agricultural systems where child labour is being used. How much is big business around the world complicit in the worst exploitation of children?

I think the way that big business is complicit ... A couple of ways. One is taking advantage of economic systems that have failed people, where people are so vulnerable or so poor that essentially children need to work in order for their families to survive. So if a big global business is sourcing products or components from those places, they need to face up to the fact that they're taking advantage of a weak jurisdiction or a weak economy.

There's another way though that big business can be complicit or impact on child labour or other forms of labour exploitation, which is driving prices down. Really demanding the most cheap labour can often see the most vulnerable people doing that labour.

You mentioned cocoa, we also hear a lot about palm oil, and children being put to work on palm oil plantations. Palm oil of course is used in a lot of food products, also in a lot of cosmetics, but which sectors or industries do you think are the worst offenders?

I think agriculture is where the majority of child labourers are. Again, there's a diversity of really problematic work, where people have deeply unsafe conditions, children work long hours, can't access education, and don't have their developmental needs met. That's one issue, but there could also be that subsistence farming, but where big business comes into it, then it's on the more concerning side. There are child labourers in many other forms of work, from manufacturing, and that was a big focus of campaigning around apparel, and footwear, and electronics even, in the past.

Although it seems as though there's been a shift in that space and companies now are doing more due diligence in their supply chains to work out if and why vulnerable people are in their supply chains, including kids.

You also see informal economies as well. You see child labour sometimes in really worrying ways. So begging is another area where children labour in very dangerous and worrying conditions. You can see between the formal and the informal economy, there are different types of vulnerabilities for children in each.

When it comes to that supply chain stuff, you said that a lot of electronics companies, apparel companies, have really started to address that. How much do you think the consumer has any control here? Can ethical consumption address the issue at all?

To a certain extent. I think that consumer choices, and companies knowing the ethical preferences and the values of the people who buy their end products, is really important, but ultimately, I think companies, and under the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, companies themselves have a responsibility to respect human rights. If they're involved in violations of human rights, then that's actually the company's responsibility. In discussing involvement in violations of human rights, the international frameworks on business involvement in human rights violations have actually shifted quite significantly since 2011 when the UN guiding principles were introduced. Now there's an acknowledgement at an international level that companies don't have to be the ones directly exploiting someone to have a responsibility, that they can be linked to exploitation at some part along the supply chain and they still have a responsibility to seek to prevent or mitigate that human rights problem.

Brynn, I was wondering as a consumer, how do I know that a product or a good is free from child labour? Because there is a bit of self-regulation here in terms of the companies having to verify their claims. I just wonder, working up in Cambodia's probably the greatest example in terms of factory work, a lot of young people are working in factories there, and I know a lot of the big brands are producing clothing in those sorts of places, but I don't hear much about them doing the verification process to actually check these. It's one thing to sign a contract with subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, but where is the verification in this whole process?

I guess it depends on the supply chain. You've picked up on one of the really key issues here. Even when there's verification, for example through supply chain auditing, the quality of those audits and those processes can vary significantly. So they can range from an independent unannounced verification process, if there is one at all, all the way through to an auditing firm telling a factory boss that an audit is going to occur on Tuesday at 3pm and the factory boss makes sure that there's no child labourers in the factory on Tuesday at 3pm. So there's some really difficult issues I think for international business to grapple with. I think where they're procuring from jurisdictions where there's weak enforcement of laws, where the worst kinds of child labour are seen, then there is a responsibility on business to look out for it, to do what they can to prevent or mitigate those impacts.

But shouldn't there be, similar to child prostitution, there are legal ramifications in Australia if you commit a crime in another country. Could there not be the same sort of mechanism set up for using child labour?

Actually, under Australian law, where child labour gets into the most ... The worst forms of child labour, human trafficking and slavery kind of situations, there actually is an offense under the Commonwealth Criminal Code that can apply to companies for knowing or reckless involvement in those types of situations. So there actually is a legislative provision that could be used in Australia, but it has never been tested and it's not ever been tested in a company context.

Has there been any cases where it could have been tested?

Yeah, I think you're raising some really interesting questions about the prosecutorial priorities of ... Investigative priorities of the Australian Federal Police, for example, that would be the authority that would be in charge of investigating and prosecuting such a case, but maybe we should talk through a hypothetical. So let's say an Australian company engages a supplier in Cambodia and them knowingly or are totally blind to the possibility that the labour in that supplier's factory is children who are working in extremely hazardous conditions or have been trafficked, for example. Then in theory, there is a possibility of a company being an accessory to that crime that occurs in Cambodia, but that's a criminal act. So there's a lot of terrible situations, and childhood depriving situations that children can find themselves in that don't reach that threshold. So the criminal law, given the issues around enforcement, and resources, and appetite for those kind of investigations, not to mention the incredibly high threshold that one must meet to not only hold someone to account for that kind of crime, but hold a company to account for being an accessory to that crime, that seems like a contrived way of going about it.

What we just really have to be looking at is what's the impact of Australian companies, particularly in the region, and some of the biggest numbers of child labourers are in the Asia Pacific region, and the impact of the governments in the region, and the Australian government and their relationships with regional governments around these kinds of issues.

So you're advocating for more carrot, less stick.

I think the sticks are really important as well. I think that the sticks are absolutely important and we should use them where we can, but-

But consumer education is probably more powerful, is what you're saying. If you can educate the consumer and make them more aware, then that's going to put pressure on those companies to be more accountable.

I think we look at all of the levels. I think consumer pressure is one, and in a lot of cases, consumer pressure is actually not useful. Palm oil, for example, I mean non branded goods, component goods, shoelaces, the situations in which consumer pressure can be exerted usefully, there aren't very many of them, they are few. The other types of pressure, and we're seeing an increase in this kind of pressure and understanding in Australia, is the investor pressure. So the investment community in Australia has quite recently become engaged in this issue of labour in the supply chain, including child labour. So investors are now starting to ask companies what processes they have in place to make sure they're not exploiting little kids in their supply chains. Investors will often seek verification of those processes. I think we need to look at all of those things, diplomatic work done by the Australian government with governments in the region, aid work of course is vital in this space. It's taking each instance, and each type of child labour, each kid's situation is different, each family's situation is different. The drivers, whether they be economic, social, cultural, or other, that equation will be different in every case.

Let's talk a little bit more about this idea of depriving childhood. I'm interested in the difference between employment versus exploitation. Peter, I imagine you see children working in agriculture, helping out on the family farm in the villages that you work in in Asia and Southeast Asia. How do you make that delineation between working, helping out, and exploitation?

I think for us when we're working in a community, we're very conscious that those children must be attending school. Certainly, in many of the countries that we work in, for generations the children have always worked on the family farm, you know? They'll look after the animals, they'll help at harvest time, etc., but when we work with a community, we try and make sure that those families are aware that these children are their future in terms of moving out of poverty, and the education that they can get will enable their family to be better off in the future. So we try and incentivise it, if you like, around that education.

So we don't see them helping in the afternoon or early in the mornings before they go to school as a real issue, as long as they're going to school and that they have time to do their homework or to do their readings, whatever they need to do after their classes. For the most part, I mean certainly in most of the countries, probably Myanmar is the exception, but most of the countries we work in, there is higher levels of participation now than there was, say 20 years ago.

In education?

Education, yeah, for children. Probably Myanmar's probably the exception.

Now would that equation change, for example, if ... And I understand and I agree with what you're saying about as long as children are attending school, what they do before or after school is their business and their family's business. Certainly it changes if children are working in hazardous or dangerous work.


But does it change in that kind of middle zone where children aren't working in a kind of culturally relevant way perhaps, but they're working in a factory?

No. I mean, most of the areas that we work in are fairly rural. We don't work in the urban centres, so we haven't got experience of that. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but in terms of our projects, we don't work in those urban centres where that could occur.

I think that raises an interesting question. Is the time to play after school, before or after school, a right of the child? If a child is going straight from school to a job, to work in a factory or to work on the farm, and working there 'til late at night and then collapsing into bed and then getting up and doing it all over again without any time for recreation, is that a problem?

That is a problem, but I think it's so hard to judge the situations in which children and families are in around the world. When you're up against having the economic means of survival, then people will do whatever it takes.

In light of that fact, and I think you're completely right, is the eradication of child labour actually not the best solution? Is regulation perhaps a more realistic solution that actually is better for these communities where a family's economic survival might actually depend on the ability of a child to work?

Well I guess the first thing is that we should be aiming for societies in which people are able to survive and families are able to survive without the labour of children other than the kind of family farm, looking after kids kind of labour, which is, again, normal in the West as well.

What do you think, Peter? Eradication versus regulation?

Look, it's always about assessing the situation in the country that you're working in and the cultural constructs within that country. It's easy for us from the comfort of Australia to sort of say, "They should do that," or. "They should do that," you know? We work with some very vulnerable families that are really, really struggling. I mean, we're talking about $2 a day to feed a whole family, and that's not uncommon, that's incredibly common, and suddenly there's an opportunity for that child. We see a lot of children being pulled out of school early after primary school.

So they might get a primary school education, but they have no chance of getting a high school education or a secondary education, and that's going to impact them down the track. There's degrees of this. Does a child go to school at all? Or does it get a primary school education? Does it get a couple of years of high school education?

I think you're going to Amartya Sen's development as freedom kind of model where the purpose of development is to increase the range of freedoms that people enjoy and to allow people to have fulfilling free lives. So when you're getting into this issue about if a child's pulled out of school before high school, then the freedom that they might get through continuing education is just limited at that point. So if you're looking at that sort of model, what is the purpose of development? Is it growth? Is it we're all super rich? Or is it actually freedom? If you're looking at a freedom model, then pulling kids out of school early is a problem.

The other issue I have a little bit of a problem with is that we try and push change in many of these developing countries, but this change came in our country over a longer period of time, but yet we're so willing to push other countries to that point quickly, and I wonder whether that approach is flawed, because why did it take us so long to get to that position? It took us cultural change, it took us along the pathway of education, you know? There was a whole lot of factors that drove us along that pathway.

Surely one of the key factors is development and wealth. When children don't need to work to support families, they won't. A question I have then is how can or should aid organisations work to prevent child labour? Or should they instead simply focus on development and helping communities to be able to support themselves so that the children aren't put in a situation where they need to work?

I think you've got two issues there. I think the first issue, you've got drivers there that are going to drive child labour, economic drivers. You have to address the economic if you're going to eliminate child labour, to a large extent, and I guess what we're trying to do is do both at the same time. We're trying to eliminate child labour because they are vulnerable and there is an immediate issue in many cases, but at the same time we've got this other concurrent issue of poverty, and I don't necessarily think you're going to solve one without the other.

Yeah, it seems a bit artificial to just pull out child labour as the human rights violation that we're going to focus on without looking at the human rights violations of poverty, and gender discrimination, and lack of access to all those economic and social rights that we take for granted and enjoy in the West.

So Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals is "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 to end child labour in all its forms." How realistic is that goal?

2025, that's eight years away. I think that's an interesting thing to note here though, that often these labour crimes, modern slavery, human trafficking, child labour, and so on, they are pulled out of their economic, social, and cultural context. They are considered sometimes to be human rights violations that just occur of themselves and that don't have at their root a whole host of other human rights violations. I think it's artificial, I think it's a real problem. Certainly, we should see attention to these human rights violations, but really, ending them, ending by a certain point in time child labour in all its forms, we need to be ending poverty in all its forms. I certainly don't think that by 2025 we're going to see the end of poverty.

You know, we see this modern slavery and human trafficking has become the thing. I guess it's because everyone can agree that slavery is bad. Everyone can agree that human trafficking is bad, and everyone can agree that child labour in a lot of situations, many situations, the worst forms of child labour are bad, but we don't see that level of international agreement around poverty. It's a different political space that we're operating in. People with a kind of conservative mindset even can say, "Well, slavery's bad," but people with that sort of mindset won't necessarily accept how all of these things are interrelated.

I just don't think people make the connection. I wish they would make the connection between this cheap T-shirt that I'm about to buy, and how did that become so cheap? They don't even connect that, yes they can see on the tag it came from Bangladesh, but they don't make the connection it's cheap because somebody, whether it's a child or somebody else, actually had to produce that, and they were underpaid to produce that, but we want the cheap good.

I mean, there are some significant problems. Like, what we're talking about now is huge structural problems in the international legal and economic order, and that's not something that a consumer has access to a remedy for at that moment when they're buying a $12 T-shirt. So I think there is that huge collective action problem, and also being overwhelmed by the enormity of an issue. So that's not to say that consumers can't stand together and demand better conditions for people overseas, but a consumer boycott, for example, isn't always the answer.

I also think when it comes to consumers, you might have a sense that $12, or I mean, you can get a T-shirt from Kmart for $5, you might have a sense that there's something a little bit dodgy going on there, so your other option then is go to Country Road or Witchery and pay $40 for a T-shirt. What are you paying for there? Are you actually, because you're paying more, are you more likely to be supporting sustainable ethical supply chains?

No. I think at that price point, really, no. I mean, it depends. There are certification schemes, Ethical Clothing Australia is one, and that's got a big union involvement, and apparel in Australia is highly regulated.

Is there a branding for clothing? If I buy with that brand, whatever that is, I can be assured that there's no child labour used in that?

Ethical Clothing Australia evaluates companies on the basis of their operations in Australia. So if it's certified by Ethical Clothing Australia, then it's manufactured in Australia, and so there's union involvement in monitoring the conditions of work. It's a huge, huge space. We're just talking about the apparel sector right now, like let's talk about the whole global economy.


I think ... I've been saying for a few years now that we're going to see this transparency tsunami hit at some point, and at a certain point everyone's going to know. These supply chains will be totally apparent, and at that point, consumers will have a moment of saying, "Actually, we can't stand for this anymore. This is horrifying."

When I was studying in New York, I asked one of my professor's, a guy called Mark Barenberg who's been working on this issue of exploitation in the global economy for years and years and years, and I said to him, "What do you actually think it would take for, when a consumer is taking a product off a shelf and deciding whether or not to buy it, for that ethical question to be real for the majority of consumers?" He was like, "I think it's going to take a live stream video direct into the factory of work, just above the pair of sneakers, or whatever, for consumers to make that connection," and that's actually ... I mean, it sounded kind of ludicrous at the time, that was 2010, but-

It seems totally possible now.

It seems possible now, right? So -

Or a QR code that you scan and you go straight into the factory. I mean, I think it's a great idea.

Yeah, so I think there'll always be this kind of competition on transparency and ethics at a really tiny top end of the market that is branded ethically, and then there'll be competition on price at the bottom, but I think it's ... Currently consumers are still too comfortable buying cheap stuff, and buying too much stuff. This fast fashion industry is not only an industry that comes with terrible human rights consequences, but also environmental consequences. But it's about increasing the level of discomfort for consumers. Really make people feel uncomfortable about that choice, and we haven't seen it yet. So maybe transparency will increase that discomfort, maybe people will become desensitised to it, who knows? But I think we're going in the right direction, right? The numbers of child labourers have gone down dramatically over the last 20 years.

Brynn O'Brien, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you very much, great to be with you.

Conversations in Development is produced by me, Olivia Rosenman, with music by Studio Gary. The podcast is brought to you by Cufa. Cufa is an international development agency whose work creates infinite value alleviating poverty, reaching more than four million people across the Asia Pacific. To learn more about Cufa's work, and for more information on our guests, visit ConversationsInDevelopment.com.au, and for more Conversations in Development make sure you subscribe to the podcast to catch all our episodes.