Zero Tolerance:  What Can Business Do to Stamp out Child Labor in China?

August 2014

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Last month, The New York Times published a piece exposing onerous child labor at a Chinese manufacturing facility producing for South Korean electronics giant, Samsung.  China Labor Watch identified the five child laborers at the Dongguan Shinyang Electronics factory.  Despite auditing the Chinese supplier three times since 2013, Samsung had reported zero cases of child labor at the site or within its greater supply chain.  Following an internal investigation, Samsung terminated business with Dongguan Shinyang on July 14th.  This case marks the first time Samsung has halted business with a supplier over child labor allegations.

In China, labor laws prohibit hiring workers under 16 years of age.  However, employers find child labor attractive, as children can be manipulated into completing the same tasks for less money than adult workers.  According to Child Labor Watch, the children at Dongguan Shinyang were not provided contracts and were only compensated for 10 of the 11 hours worked daily.  Underage workers are openly encouraged to lie about their status, and even provided identification cards belonging to of-age workers.

Dongguan Shinyang is not a stand-alone labor incident in China; for the past decade, labor and safety abuses have been identified in manufacturing facilities serving various industries.  Indeed, Samsung is not the only technology company, despite clear corporate policies and monitoring mechanisms developed for Chinese suppliers, to discover underage workers in its supply chains.  In its yearly assessment of nearly 400 suppliers, Apple discovered 11 facilities to be in violation of its child labor policy in 2012.  While today companies tout the zero-tolerance child labor policies on the books, implementation is a different story.

What can be done to accelerate this shift from corporate policy setting to full-fledged implementation?

For Samsung, the first step was to immediately terminate business with the supplier.  This move signals to other suppliers that Samsung takes its zero-tolerance policy seriously, and should serve as a warning to other suppliers that child labor violations will not stand.  Next, Samsung must identify the breakdown in its monitoring mechanisms.  How was it that Samsung's Global Sustainability Report (released only weeks before the Dongguan Shinyang revelation) proclaimed its supply chain of 130 facilities in China to be child labor free for two years running?  Can the company reimagine its transparency and accountability mechanisms to foster deeper understanding of its suppliers and their hiring practices?

From the internal corporate perspective, the insularity of senior leadership from supply chain transparency implies child labor and other human trafficking violations still very much represent a clear and present danger for globally-sourced corporations.  This reality, along with China's spot on the U.S. Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report Tier II Watch List and after last year falling in the very lowest Tier III category, should spur corporations to take a stronger stand in the fight against child labor and other abuses meeting the definition of human trafficking to ensure ethical, resilient, and ultimately sustainable global business operations.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the author alone.

Ambassador Mark P. Lagon
Founding Counselor
Global Politics and Security Chair at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service Program and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of State.