October 23, 2014

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Children's Rights: Will the Voluntary Framework Go Far Enough?

Will these Principles take business from "do not harm" to "invest in helping children thrive?"

Dove-and-shapter

By Elizabeth Dove and Heather Shapter

Children are one-third of the world’s population and ALL of our future.

They are also among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society.

It's easy for businesses in the industrialized West to overlook children's rights when creating business plans for the developing world. After all, young children do not work where they come from. But the situation is much more complex for developing nations, where when companies have taken a stand against child labor, local families have plunged further into poverty, making adequate food, clean water, healthcare and education even more difficult to attain. The reality for many families in the developing world, therefore, is that children do need to work to earn extra income and/or to learn the family business, and it is often culturally acceptable to do so.

How do global businesses work within diverse cultural realities and complex global political and business environments so children are not in harm’s way?

On February 13, 2014, UNICEF Canada, Save the Children and the UN Global Compact Canada, in collaboration with several global companies, hosted the Canadian release of The Children’s Rights and Business Principles, offering Canadian businesses a framework to incorporate children's rights into their operations.

These 10 Principles were developed to help businesses understand and address their impact on the rights and well-being of children not only in the workplace, but also the larger marketplace, environment and in their communities:

All businesses should:

  1. Meet their responsibility to respect children’s rights and commit to supporting the human rights of children
  2. Contribute to the elimination of child labour, including in all business activities and business relationships
  3. Provide decent work for young workers, parents and caregivers
  4. Ensure the protection and safety of children in all business activities and facilities
  5. Ensure that products and services are safe and seek to support children’s rights through them
  6. Use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights
  7. Respect and support children’s rights in relation to the environment and to land acquisition and use
  8. Respect and support children’s rights in security arrangements
  9. 9 Help protect children affected by emergencies
  10. Reinforce community and government efforts to protect and fulfill children’s rights

Canadian Business Shares Child-Focused Efforts

Several private sector industry leaders were on hand to discuss how their companies have been applying the Principles in their operations.

Mining company Sherritt International's Juanita Montalvo, for example, spoke about CSR_Workbooktheir project in Madagascar, home to 22 million people, 90 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day. During the course of their operations, she said, Sherritt hired almost 25,000 local workers and spent $2.4 billion to grow the Madagascar economy. But it became apparent early on that children in the community would be increasingly exposed to child labor and sexual exploitation. The result: a zero tolerance policy on child exploitation created in collaboration with UNICEF and others.

Doug Horswell of Teck Resources shared a story about his company’s experience in a remote community in Alaska that houses the second largest zinc mine in the world. When Teck learned about the rising number of teenage suicides in the community, they worked with the local high school principal and John Baker, an arctic dog sled musher and mentor to young people, to build a program to empower teens in rural Alaska. Since the program was activated, not one teen suicide has been committed in the community.

For IKEA, “children are the most important people” in the fulfillment of their vision “to create a better everyday life for people,” said Brendan Seale, sustainability manager at IKEA Canada. In India, for example, IKEA has brought its carpet making in-house to make working conditions more visible. They are also training teachers so children can have a better education.

Will the Principles Improve the Lives of Children?

Despite these examples, however, it still remains to be seen if the Children’s Rights and Business Principles go far enough: their adoption remains voluntary and there are no legal consequences for violating them. Also, children lack public voice to report impact. The UN has however introduced an accompanying workbook with tools for helping companies integrate the Principles.

Beyond accountability, notably absent from the Principles is the leadership to move from “do not harm” to “invest in helping children thrive.” Indeed the forward of the Principles document underscores this: “Respect for children’s rights is the minimum required of business.” It is not enough to simply protect children, especially those in the developing world. Businesses have the opportunity, through their operations, supply chains, relations with the government and other opportunities to raise the bar, and living standards, for children.

By placing improved health and well-being of children within the social purpose of their companies, businesses now have a unique opportunity of leveraging the Principles to have a sustainable impact on the lives of children.

1 billion children are deprived of one or more services essential to survival and development.

2 million children under 15 worldwide are living with HIV.

101 million children are not attending primary school.

(See www.childinfo.org.)

Perhaps business responsibilities towards children are best explained in the words of a young person in Peru as noted in the Children's Rights and Principles:

“Do not take advantage of us, we ask you to be responsible. Do not support us because you feel pity for us; instead support us because we deserve it. We purchase your products and services, but we ask you to invest in our development. We do not want gifts; we want you to be responsible.”

About the Authors:

Elizabeth Dove is a specialist in strategically engaging the public, companies and government on sustainability and social change. She has worked as senior staff and consultant for initiatives that support the arts, child welfare, public health and particularly international development. Using a results-oriented approach focused on tangible measurable benefits, Elizabeth helps bridge the cultural differences between sectors to create collaborations that meet shared goals. She is an Associate at Open Spaces Learning, a Canadian change management firm helping companies realize business and social impact. Twitter: @EDove5

For the past 20 years, Heather Shapter has partnered with leaders in business, not-for-profit, government and academia all over the world to further her commitment to end poverty for vulnerable populations. She is a sought after speaker and facilitator of strategic culture-shifting programs that galvanize the corporate sector to lead from ‘profit with purpose’ – good for the world; good for business. Heather’s specialties include organizational capacity building, strategic planning, leadership development, executive group coaching, workshop design and facilitation. Heather has been recognized nationally and internationally for leadership in service of others. Twitter: @OpenSpacesLearn

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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