Legislation needed to root out child labor

Child labor cannot be eradicated by agreements and private initiatives alone, according to Rabobank, Tony Chocolonely and others. A legal framework is essential if we are to achieve the UN’s sustainable development target to end it by 2025.

There are roughly 218 million children aged between five and 17 in work worldwide, says the UN Labor Organization in its most recent report. Over 150 million of them are forced to work. And more than 70 million children have to carry out their work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions, such as in mines or weaving mills. However, the bulk of child labor – over 70% - takes place in the agricultural sector.
“Combating child labor is a major part of social sustainability in the Food & Agri sector for us,”says Maarten Biermans, Head Sustainability & Dialogue at Rabobank. “That means there is a direct link to our program, Growing a better world together.”

"70% of child labor takes place in the agricultural sector"

International CSR agreements

“Child labor is listed as a no-go in our sustainability policy,” says Biermans. “It is something we hold our clients to, locally and internationally, because the universal human rights should apply all over the world. That is why we have committed to the international corporate social responsibility agreement for the banking sector.” This Dutch agreement includes pledges on tackling human rights violations in investments by banks and their business partners worldwide. It is one of three such declarations of intent that were drawn up in recent years by the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER). The other two agreements concern sustainable clothing & textiles and the gold sector.

“Self-regulation alone will not solve the problem of child labor"

- Pascal van Ham, Head of Marketing, Tony Chocolonely

Agreements are not enough

“However admirable, agreements and private initiatives are not enough,” says Pascal van Ham, Head of Marketing at chocolate manufacturer, Tony Chocolonely. Rooting out child labor and modern slavery in the cocoa industry is the reason the company was set up in 2005. Tony Chocolonely is committed to a world in which all chocolate is produced 100% slave-labor-free.
Van Ham: “Self-regulation alone will not solve the problem of child labor. For example, about 72 businesses signed the clothing & textile agreement, about 30% of the Dutch market. Tackling child labor vigorously and methodically requires the efforts of all businesses, including the passive followers who don’t sign up to agreements. Those businesses can only be nudged into action by legislation and regulations.”

A duty of care to prevent child labor

Tony Chocolonely is actively committed to the Duty of Care to Prevent Child Labor Bill that was passed by the Dutch Lower House at the beginning of 2017. The bill would require businesses to prevent child labor throughout their supply chain. Van Ham explains, “As part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Netherlands has agreed to end all child labor by 2025. We think a legal framework is required to help achieve that.”
“A law would mobilize the positive forces in the entire market,” agrees Biermans. Prior to the bill being debated in the Upper House at the end of last year, Tony Chocolonely wrote an open letter to convince the members of the Upper House to vote in favor of it. Rabobank was one of over 40 signatories.

“A law would mobilize the positive forces in the entire market”

- Maarten Biermans, Head Sustainability & Dialogue, Rabobank


The Dutch bill goes one step further than its British counterpart, the Modern Slavery Act of 2015: not only do companies have to state that child labor does not occur in their supply chain, they must also prove it. In addition, the Dutch bill contains a penalty clause – companies who demonstrably fail to do what is necessary to prevent child labor risk a fine.

The bill was widely criticized during the debate in the Upper House at the end of 2017, in particular with regard to how it is to be enforced and implemented. Attje Kuiken, who introduced it, requested more time to prepare her response and it has been put on hold for the time being.

Not a magic bullet

“The bill is legally complex and I’m interested to see whether it will be passed,” says Maarten Biermans. “In any case, a single law will not eradicate all child labor. There is no simple solution, no magic bullet, but it is a step in the right direction. Supportive policy is needed to genuinely improve the welfare of children in this situation. Civil society, the business sector and governments will all have to act together.”