What threats does the pursuit of profit pose for children? The UNGC, UNICEF and Save the Children have created a set of principles designed to protect children from business.
By Elaine Cohen
Anyone who takes an interest in Corporate Responsibility Reports or visits the sustainability websites of almost any company you can think of will not fail to notice the prominence of children in design and content (especially relating to community and philanthropic initiatives).
Images of children, happy or sad, toddlers or teens, poverty-stricken haunting eyes or excited grins thriving in a technology environment , kids embracing nature or playing sports, and countless other images adorn the CSR communications of most companies.
Of course. CSR is all about our children. Protecting the quality of life and the planet for future generations.
Not once, but many times, when I have asked senior CSR practitioners in companies: What does CSR mean for you, they quickly respond "My children" or even "My grandchildren?" Wouldn't you think, then, that CSR would be a child-friendly concept? Wouldn’t you think that businesses would, first and foremost, ensure their activities do not harm children? Shouldn't protecting children's rights be one of the most basic building blocks of CSR?
Business Does Not Protect Children
For companies with a declared CSR approach, this might be a sensible assumption. However, Joel Bakan's book Children Under Siege tells a different story. This is a story of large corporations, including many CSR "leaders", whose marketing activities are consistently and deliberately targeted at children in a way which puts their lives at risk.
A paper published in 2007 by Save the Children, authored by Deborah Doane and Alison Holder, titled Why CSR is Failing Children rings just as true today as it did five years ago, concluding that ethical codes "have worked effectively only in instances where there has been strong government involvement through legislation and enforcement." A quick look at the website of The Child Labor Coalition shows the multitude of instances in which children are abused in the name of business, ranging from unsafe working on farms in the U.S., to child labor on the tobacco farms of Malawi, to children picking cotton in Burkina Faso for Victoria's Secret.
The continuous stream of stories in the media of human rights abuses of children in supply chains should alert us to the fact that business can and does pose many threats to our future generations.
How Business Endangers Children
We can classify the threats businesses post to children in two ways.
The first is easier to identify and, theoretically at least, more straightforward to address. This relates to the direct impacts of business - for example – the use of child labor. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 215 million children are employed in a part- or full-time capacity, many of whom in dangerous or inappropriate roles, with inadequate safety protection, and poor compensation.
The second sort of threat relates to the indirect impacts of business – or the effects on children of business impacts on society such as their contribution to inequitable distribution of wealth, global food insecurity, inadequate access to medicines, environmental pollution and even, the poor working conditions of parents, whether this be due to low wages (over 8 percent of full time employed persons in Europe and 7 percent in the U.S. are classified as "working poor" and living below the poverty line) or unsustainable work cultures such as those which force employees to commit suicide or become sick. These phenomena have a significant negative impact on the ability of children to develop and thrive.
What Business Can Do
Not without cause, therefore, is the publication last month of a new set of Children’s Rights and Business Principles by Save the Children, the UN Global Compact, and UNICEF, "the first comprehensive set of principles to guide companies on the full range of actions they can take in the workplace, marketplace and community to respect and support children’s rights."
The 10 principles state that business should "meet their responsibility to respect children’s rights and commit to supporting the human rights of children" through a range of actions including elimination of child labor, ensuring the safety of products and services, using marketing and advertising that respect and support children's rights and more.
The Principles are an important and relevant elaboration of expectations of business in relation to children, "who are frequently and often overlooked as stakeholders of business." Alongside the Principles, the UN Global Compact also published the insights of 400 children who share, from their perspectives, the ways in which companies positively and negatively impact them.
They say businesses "take over a lot of space and children have fewer places to play" alongside, arguably, more serious issues of business pollution through "smoke, chemicals and sound", as well as the positives such as "business provides jobs near homes so people don't have to travel so far to go to work".
Will The Children’s Rights and Business Principles Make a Difference?
The downside to all of this is that the power of voluntary principles to drive systemic change is limited. The likelihood that The Children's Principles will transform the way corporations protect children is not promising. Companies which already have a CSR platform may take note and seek opportunities for improvement but for those which do not, these Principles will probably not even break through their limited radar.
Nonetheless, this initiative is worthwhile. We should not give up on our children. Perhaps, one day, businesses will understand that by harming the world's children, they are harming their own businesses?