Thursday, February 23, 2012

Child labour, globalisation and WTO

This report titled "Small World, Big Responsibility" highlights the condition of the use of child labour in global production networks. It brings out the "dark side of globalisation" wherein globalisation has led to the expansion of outsourcing and increased access to products manufactured around the world. As a result, many children suffering the worst forms of child labour are producing goods for the world economy. At the same time, companies releasing these goods on to the market are unaware or ignore the fact that exploited children are procuring raw materials or manufacturing components for their products.

The report highlights the use of child labour in the globalised world.
In the last few decades, global rates of consumption have grown rapidly alongside high levels of economic growth. The global economy is still growing even now, despite the slowdown in growth from the economic recession (gross world product increased by 0.3 percent in 2009, compared to a yearly average increase of 6.6 percent from 2000–08).Globalisation has led to the expansion of outsourcing and increased access to goods and products manufactured globally by both consumers and manufacturers/distributors. This has led to increasing concern about the use of child labour in supply chains with many children in the worst forms of child labour producing goods for the global economy.

Indeed, in its annual Child Labour Index, designed to enable companies to identify the risk of child labour being used within their supply chains, the risk analysis firm, Maplecroft, classifies 40% of the 197 countries included as posing an ‘extreme risk’ (see map below).The top 10 countries identified as posing an extreme risk are: Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Burundi, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.

A number of products that involve child slavery, forced child labour or work in extremely hazardous conditions have links to the UK.  For example, significant amounts of tobacco from Malawi, notorious for their use of child labour in production, end up in the UK. In 2010, the UK imported 3,205,400 tonnes of tobacco from Malawi, the value of which was around £8 million. 
There are also strong links between the production of electronics to meet a growing demand and hazardous labour. 

The production of mobile phones requires an array of minerals, including coltan or tantalum (which is heat resistant and is the material that enables phones to be hand-held), cassiterite (tin ore used for soldering components together) and tungsten (which enables phones to vibrate). Children are often involved in the extraction of these minerals. For example, it is estimated that up to 40% of workers in many of the DRC’s artisanal mines, which produce tantalum, cassiterite and tungsten, as well as copper, gold and diamonds, are children.In some areas of Eastern DRC armed groups prey on the mining sector and children who have been conscripted into armed groups have to undertake mining activities."
The report recommends measures for the citizen, company and government to undertake to address this serious issue. The WTO has traditionally stayed away from addressing issues of human rights, environment, child labour. Would it be WTO consistent for a country to impose restrictions through laws that ban the import of products that engage child labour? Would it be permissible for a regulation to mandate "labelling" of imports and domestic products as being "child labour" free? Would this be a unreasonable technical barrier to trade and hence violative of the TBT Agreement. Is the problem to be addressed outside the WTO by countries insisting that child labour practises will not be tolerated and countries will take conscious time bound steps to eradicate it. Would the child labour agenda be used by the developed world to hurt developing countries trade interests in the name of protection of human rights? This is not to condone the use of child labour in global production chains. It is to recognise that the solution offered should not lead to an unfair advantage to the developed world while actually hurting the interests of those whom it seeks to protect.While it is nobody's case that the issue must not be addressed immediately and forcefully, whether the WTO and trade rules are the right fora for this is debatable.

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