A child labour free Europe: How the new Commission can make it happen

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to have ‘zero-tolerance’ for child labour in EU trade policy is a promising step. Delphine Moralis explains how these warm words can be turned into concrete actions to improve the lives of millions of children.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to have ‘zero-tolerance’ for child labour in EU trade policy is a promising step. Delphine Moralis explains how these warm words can be turned into concrete actions to improve the lives of millions of children.

Delphine Moralis is the Secretary General of child rights organisation Terre des Hommes.

Saanvi does not miss working in the mine.

Since swapping her pick axe for schoolbooks and pencils, she has made friends and now has the opportunity of learning how to read, write and build a better future for herself.

Saanvi is one of 7,000 children now attending school instead of mining mica in the Jharkhand and Bihar regions of India. With Terre des Hommes’ help, Saanvi’s family was able to begin breeding goats as an extra source of income, liberating her to begin her studies.

Many children around the world are not so fortunate. Around 152 million children worldwide are currently forced into child labour. Half of these working children are currently trapped in the ‘worst forms of child labour’ – work that is severely detrimental to a child’s physical, mental or emotional wellbeing and development. Terre des Hommes’ efforts to improve the conditions for these children are detailed in our latest Annual Report.

As the largest trading bloc in the world, the European Union is in a unique position to help these children. Many of the products made using child labour – such as the electronics and cosmetics containing mica mined by Saanvi – are eventually sold within the EU. By making sure EU-bound products are child labour free, the EU can force industries exploiting children to take action.

The initial signs that the new European Commission will be willing to step up are promising. Incoming President Ursula von der Leyen has promised a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to child labour. But rhetoric alone is not enough, and as the European Parliament has been demanding, the new Commission must introduce an EU mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence framework.

The Commission should draft new legislation which guarantees that any products made using child labour are rooted out of the European market, through imposing mandatory due diligence across all supply chains. Companies should be made to carry out these checks across every stage of production, including any subsidiary companies they control, to prevent human and children’s rights violations.

Mandatory due diligence is already being developed and written into law by many EU countries, and the EU can help harmonise existing standards.

In the Netherlands, the ‘Child Labour Due Diligence Law’ was adopted in May 2019 after work between academics, think tanks, members of the Dutch Parliament and civil society – including Terre des Hommes. The law applies to all companies selling or providing goods and services in the Netherlands, forcing them to check if any of their operations or activities were carried out using child labour.

If children are working within a company’s supply chains in a way detrimental to their health or wellbeing, then that company must produce a plan showing how they will eradicate child labour from those chains if they hope to do business in the Netherlands.

But if the new Commission is serious about purging products made using child labour from the EU, its focus must go far beyond trade.

Investing in education, healthcare and social protection in countries with high numbers of child workers is one of the most effective ways of eradicating child labour. Children are less likely to drop out of a quality education system in order to work, and parents are less likely to financially rely on their children if they themselves have quality jobs and are supported by adequate social protection. The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – the future fund to be used by the EU for international development – provides the Commission with an excellent opportunity to do this.

These efforts are far more likely to bear fruit if working children themselves are allowed to shape any legislation and guidelines designed to protect them. The ‘Time to Talk!’ report, co-created by Terre des Hommes and Kindernothilfe, consulted with almost 2,000 working children in 36 countries across the globe to gauge their views on the work they did and why they did it.

Using child-friendly techniques such as drawing pictures, children made recommendations to governments, civil society and intergovernmental organisations – including the EU. They called for a reduction in family poverty to lessen the pressure to work, decent education available to everyone, protection from hazardous and harmful work, improved working conditions, a say in the policy decisions that affect them and protection from violence. For any action the EU takes to be effective, the views of these children must be taken into account.

By investing in these solutions, the European Commission can also help child labourers who may not work in product supply chains. Many girls across the world are exploited when being forced to work as domestic maids, needing to seek shelter in centres such as those supported by Terre des Hommes in Peru. Tackling the root causes of child labour would mean these forgotten girls would also benefit from the Commission’s zero-tolerance approach.

Having adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU has pledged to eradicate all forms of exploitative child labour by 2025. By making these changes, Ursula von der Leyen’s new Commission can take the initiative in meeting this goal, giving hope to Saanvi and millions of children like her the world over.

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