Created in partnership with the Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights

Child Labour

Nearly 1 in 10 children worldwide are subjected to child labour, a number that has risen for the first time in two decades and is likely to increase further due to global climate, health and security crises.

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Due Diligence Considerations

This section outlines due diligence steps that companies can take to eliminate child labour in their operations and supply chains. The described due diligence steps are aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Further information on UNGPs is provided in the ‘Key Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks’ section below or in the Introduction.

While the below steps provide guidance on eliminating child labour in particular, it is generally more resource-efficient for companies to ‘streamline’ their human rights due diligence processes by also identifying and addressing other relevant human rights issues (e.g. forced labourdiscriminationfreedom of association) at the same time.

Key Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks

Several human rights frameworks describe the due diligence steps that businesses should ideally implement to address human rights issues, including forced labour. The primary framework is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Launched in 2011, the UNGPs offer guidance on how to implement the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, which establishes the respective responsibilities of Governments and businesses — and where they intersect.

The UNGPs set out how companies, in meeting their responsibility to respect human rights, should put in place due diligence and other related policies and process, which include:

  • A publicly available policy setting out the company’s commitment to respect human rights;
  • Assessment of any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which the company may be involved across its entire value chain;
  • Integration of the findings from their impact assessments into relevant internal functions/processes — and the taking of effective action to manage the same;
  • Tracking of the effectiveness of the company’s management actions;
  • Reporting on how the company is addressing its actual or potential adverse impacts; and
  • Remediation of adverse impacts that the company has caused or contributed to.

The steps outlined below follow the UNGPs framework and can be considered a process which a business looking to start implementing human rights due diligence processes can follow.

Additionally, the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBPs) were based on the UNGPs as the first comprehensive set of principles to guide companies on the due diligence steps they can take to respect children’s rights in the workplace, marketplace and community.

The OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises further define the elements of responsible business conduct, including human and labour rights.

Another important reference document is the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), which contains the most detailed guidance on due diligence as it pertains to labour rights. These instruments, articulating principles of responsible business conduct, draw on international standards enjoying widespread consensus.

Companies can seek specific guidance on this and other issues relating to international labour standards from the ILO Helpdesk for Business. The ILO Helpdesk assists company managers and workers who want to align their policies and practices with principles of international labour standards and build good industrial relations. It has a specific section on forced labour.

Additionally, the SME Compass offers guidance on the overall human rights due diligence process by taking businesses through five key due diligence phases. The SME Compass has been developed in particular to address the needs of SMEs but is freely available and can be used by other companies as well. The tool, available in English and German, is a joint project by the German Government’s Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

1. Develop a Policy Commitment to Help Eliminate Child Labour

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, a human rights policy should be:

  • “Approved at the most senior level” of the company;
  • “Informed by relevant internal and/or external expertise”;
  • Specific about company’s “human rights expectations of personnel, business partners and other parties directly linked to its operations, products or services”;
  • “Publicly available and communicated internally and externally to all personnel, business partners and other relevant parties”; and
  • “Reflected in operational policies and procedures necessary to embed it throughout the business”.

Research of 2,500 companies across nine industries conducted by the Global Child Forum suggests that 57% of companies have some form of stand-alone policy against child labour. Examples of companies with stand-alone child labour policies include ALDI South, H&M and ASOS. These tend to be companies that have identified child labour as a highly salient issue.

Another option is to integrate child labour commitments into companies’ wider human rights policy, an option that has been taken by Unilever, Marks and Spencer and Freeport-McMoRan. Where companies do not have a human rights policy, child labour is often addressed in other policy documents, such as a business code of conduct or ethics and/or a supplier code of conduct. Starbucks, BHP and HP offer examples of multinational companies that integrate child labour requirements into their codes of conduct. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), such as Haas & Co. Magnettechnik GmbH, also often include child labour in their business code of conduct or supplier code of conduct.

Businesses may want to check the ILO Helpdesk for Business, which provides answers to the most common questions that businesses may encounter while developing their child labour policies — or integrating child labour commitments into other policy documents. Examples include:

  • I am trying to figure out why the basic minimum age is set at 15 or 14. What would be the consequences of setting a global policy with a basic minimum age at 16?
  • A company is committed to not recruiting people below 18 years old, but the company operates in States where people below 18 have the right to work. Can it be considered as a breach of ILO Conventions related to discrimination?
  • What are the general recommendations concerning apprenticeships to use when clarifying our child labour requirements to our suppliers?

Businesses may also consider aligning their policies with relevant industry-wide or cross-industry policy commitments, for example:

  • Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) Code of Conduct
  • Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code
  • amfori BSCI Code of Conduct
  • Fair Labor Association (FLA) Code of Conduct
  • The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism initiated by ECPAT, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and several tour operators
Helpful Resources
  • ILO, Helpdesk for Business on International Labour Standards: The ILO Helpdesk for Businessis a resource for company managers and workers on how to better align business operations with international labour standards, including child labour.
  • ILO-IOE, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Businesses: This guidanceincludes several diagnostic questions that businesses could ask to evaluate their child labour policy.
  • ILO, Child Labour Platform: Good Practice NotesGuidanceon developing children’s rights and labour policies with examples from business.
  • UNICEF and Save the Children, Children’s Rights in Policies and Codes of Conduct: This toolrecommends ways for businesses to incorporate children’s rights into their policies and codes of conduct, based on the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.
  • Global Child Forum, Child Labour Policy: A Child-Centred Approach: This report gives guidanceon developing child labour policies and integrating child labour approaches into existing policies.
  • United Nations Global Compact-OHCHR, A Guide for Business: How to Develop a Human Rights Policy: This guidanceprovides recommendations on how to develop a human rights policy and includes extracts from companies’ policies referencing child labour.
  • SME Compass: Provides adviceon how to develop a human rights strategy and formulate a policy statement.
  • SME Compass, Policy statement: Companies can use this practical guide to learn to develop a policy statement step-by-step. Several use cases illustrate how to implement the requirements.
  • UN Global Compact Labour Principles, Advancing decent work in business Learning Plan: This learning plan, developed by the UN Global Compact and the International Labour Organization, helps companies understand each Labour Principle and its related concepts and best practices as well as practical steps to help companies understand and take action across a variety of issues.

2. Assess Actual and Potential Child Labour Impacts

UNGP Requirements

The UNGPs note that impact assessments:

  • Will vary in complexity depending on “the size of the business enterprise, the risk of severe human rights impacts, and the nature and context of its operations”;
  • Should cover impacts that the company may “cause or contribute to through its own activities, or which may be directly linked to its operations, products or services by its business relationships”;
  • Should involve “meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders” in addition to other sources of information such as audits; and
  • Should be ongoing.

Impact assessments should look at both actual and potential impacts, i.e. impacts that have already manifested or could manifest. This contrasts to a risk assessment that would only look at potential impacts and may not satisfy all of the above criteria.

Child labour impact assessments are most often integrated into broader human rights impact assessments (for example Freeport-McMoRan). The ILO-IOE Child Labour Guidance Tool for Businesses includes suggestions on how to identify and assess actual and potential child labour impacts; how to prioritize operations and parts of a supply chain to conduct more detailed assessments; and how to conduct stakeholder engagement. If impact assessments involve children through interviews or other data gathering mechanisms, strict safeguarding measures should be put in place to protect the children from any potential harm, such as employer retaliation or unplanned termination of employment.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO and IOE, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: Helpful guidanceon how businesses can systematically identify and assess actual or potential child labour impacts.
  • UNICEF and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Children’s Rights in Impact Assessments: A Guide for Integrating Children’s Rights into Impact Assessments and Taking Action for Children: This guidegives specific advice on how to conduct a child-sensitive impact assessment.
  • Rainforest Alliance,Child Labor Toolkit Module 3: Risk Assessment: This toolkit provides step-by-step guidance on how to conduct a basic and in-depth risk assessment on child labour.
  • UNICEF and the Global Child Forum, Children’s Rights and Business Atlas: The Atlasprovides quantitative scores on risks of child labour for businesses in 198 countries.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Child Labour: A detailed guidefor businesses on assessing the actual and potential risk of child labour in global supply chains.
  • US Department of Labor, List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labordetails child labour risks in various goods and commodities, which can be used as qualitative data in risk and impact assessments.
  • Human Rights Watch has a range of resourceson child labour, which could also be used as qualitative data in risk and impact assessments.
  • CSR Risk Check: A toolallowing companies to check which international CSR risks (including related to child labour) businesses are exposed to and what can be done to manage them. The tool provides tailor-made information on the local human rights situation as well as environmental, social and governance issues. It allows users to filter by product/raw material and country of origin. The tool was developed by MVO Netherland; the German version is funded and implemented by the German Government’s Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights and UPJ.

3. Integrate and Take Action to Address Child Labour Impacts

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, effective integration requires that:

  • “Responsibility for addressing [human rights] impacts is assigned to the appropriate level and function within the business enterprise” (e.g. senior leadership, executive and board level);
  • “Internal decision-making, budget allocations and oversight processes enable effective responses to such impacts”.

The actions and systems that a company will need to apply will vary depending on the outcomes of its impact assessment. Any actions should take into account (and try to address) risk factors and root causes of child labour, i.e. what caused or might cause a human rights violation.

One of the most common actions undertaken by companies is training of company employees and suppliers, which may cover child labour laws, company policies, procedures to ascertaining the age of workers and detect falsified documentation, and safety and health procedures for young workers (which often differ from those required for adults). Training can be delivered in a range of formats, such as online videos, e-learnings, in-person sessions or supplier round tables. Coca-Cola, for example, conducts training on human rights (including child labour) for employees, bottlers, suppliers and auditors. Another example is PepsiCo that conducts training for suppliers on PepsiCo’s Supplier Code of Conduct, which includes the prohibition of child labour. Businesses, however, should be mindful that training alone will not solve the problem, for example, if parents have no other option than to bring their children to work (be it for economic reasons or for lack of access to education etc.). Hence, the need to address root causes of child labour.

The ILO-IOE Child Labour Guidance Tool for Businesses includes further suggestions of practical approaches by companies to prevent or mitigate child labour in their operations and supply chains, including:

  • Proactively communicating their short and medium-term needs to suppliers and other business partners so that they can plan ahead appropriately;
  • Enhancing alignment and collaboration between the purchasing team and sustainability or responsible sourcing experts inside the buying company;
  • Moving to integrate the two functions, making purchasing managers directly responsible for social compliance in relation to the suppliers they buy from;
  • Participating in multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) whose code requires members to evaluate the role that purchasing practices can play in incentivizing negative impacts by suppliers.

Ferrero and Olam International are examples of companies taking action on child labour in cocoa supply chains through their membership in the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI)Hilton and TUI Group work on protecting children from commercial sexual exploitation — one of the worst forms of child labour — through their membership in The Code initiative.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO and IOE, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: Helpful guidanceon integrating and taking action on child labour.
  • ILO, Supplier Guidance on Preventing, Identifying and Addressing Child Labour: A practicalguidance for factories and other production sites on effective age verification and measures to protect young workers.
  • ILO, Child Labour Platform: Good Practice Notes: Provides guidanceon embedding child-centred practices and management systems within a business.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Child Labour: A detailed guideon actions that businesses can take to eliminate child labour in global supply chains.
  • Global Child Forum, Child Labour Policy: A Child-Centred ApproachGuidanceon embedding child labour policies in practice.
  • SME Compass: Provides adviceon how to take action on human rights by embedding them in your company, creating and implementing an action plan, and conducting a supplier review and capacity building.
  • SME Compass, Identifying stakeholders and cooperation partners: This practical guide is intended to help companies identify and classify relevant stakeholders and cooperation partners
  • SME Compass, Standards Compass: This online tool offers guidance on what to pay attention to when selecting sustainability standards or when participating in multi-stakeholder initiatives. It allows comparing standards and initiatives with respect to their contribution to human rights due diligence and their potential limitations.
  • UNICEF, Engaging Stakeholder’s on Children’s Rights: This tool offers guidance to companies on how to engage stakeholders on children’s rights to help enhance their standards and practices at both the corporate and site levels.

4. Track Performance on Eliminating Child Labour

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, tracking should:

  • “Be based on appropriate qualitative and quantitative indicators”;
  • “Draw on feedback from both internal and external sources, including affected stakeholders” (e.g. through grievance mechanisms).

Businesses should regularly review their approach to eliminating child labour to see if it is effective and is having the desired impact. The ILO-IOE Child Labour Guidance Tool for Businesses includes suggestions on systems for tracking performance.

Audits and social monitoring are common ways to check performance. Such monitoring or audits can be undertaken internally by the company or a third party contracted by the company. A common approach or first step taken by companies is to issue self-assessment questionnaires (SAQs) to suppliers, requesting information and evidence on their child labour procedures, such as how they verify the age of their workers or their own approach to managing child labour. Repeated SAQs can give insight into improvements in supplier management systems and let suppliers self-report on actual or potential child labour impacts.

Where SAQ results warrant it, companies can carry out on-the-ground (or in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic) remote suppliers audits. Common supplier audit frameworks that span most industries and include child labour indicators include SMETA audits and SA8000 accredited auditsGeneral Mills, for example, conducts SMETA audits of its suppliers and co-packers.

If shortcomings are identified, Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) should be developed jointly with the supplier, setting out clear targets and milestones for improvement. Progress should then be tracked regularly to ensure CAP completion.

Setting SMART targets helps objectively track performance. SMART targets are those that are: specific, measurable, attainable, resourced and time-bound. Examples of indicators to be recorded and monitored include:

  • Child labour grievances recorded (number and nature)
  • Audit findings on child labour
  • Progress on Corrective Action Plans
  • Media reports on instances of child labour
  • Official inspection outcomes

Responsibility for data collection should be clearly allocated to relevant roles within the company and reported with a set frequency (for instance once a month).

Although both SAQs and audits are commonly used by companies in various industries, both tools have limitations in their ability to uncover hidden violations, including child labour. Unannounced audits somewhat mitigate this problem but even these are not always effective at identifying violations given that an auditor tends to spend only limited time on-site. Furthermore, human rights violations, including child labour, often happen further up supply chains, whereas audits often only cover ‘Tier 1’ suppliers.

New tools such as technology-enabled worker surveys/‘worker voice’ tools allow real-time monitoring and partly remedy the problems of traditional audits. An increasing number of companies complement traditional audits with ‘worker voice’ surveys (e.g. Unilever and VF Corporation), which can be easily adapted to different languages to accommodate workers’ needs.

Some companies go further and adopt ‘beyond audit’ approaches, which are built on proactive collaboration with suppliers rather than on supplier monitoring (‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’). Collaborating with other stakeholders, including workers’ organizations, law enforcement authorities, labour inspectorates and non-governmental organizations to proactively identify and remediate child labour can also prove to be effective. Progress reports from MSIs, such as the Responsible Mica Initiative, may also be helpful to track improvements in areas that are highly relevant to the occurrence of child labour.

This diagram demonstrates the 4-step process discussed above for monitoring performance.
Helpful Resources
  • ILO and IOE, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: This tool includes helpful guidance on monitoring and performance tracking.
  • Global Child Forum, Child Labour Policy: A Child-Centred Approach: Outlines different approaches to tracking performance on child labour, particularly Approach 6.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Child Labour: A step-by-step guidefor businesses on eliminating child labour in global supply chains, including Step 4 ‘Monitoring implementation and impact’.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to measure human rights performance.
  • SME Compass: Key performance indicators for due diligence: Companies can use this overview of selected quantitative key performance indicators to measure implementation, manage it internally and/or report it externally.
  • SME Compass: Measuring and reporting on progress: This resource provides an overview of how to measure and report on the progress of the actions taken to address human rights impacts.

5. Communicate Performance on Eliminating Child Labour

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, regular communications of performance should:

  • “Be of a form and frequency that reflect an enterprise’s human rights impacts and that are accessible to its intended audiences”;
  • “Provide information that is sufficient to evaluate the adequacy of an enterprise’s response to the particular human rights impact involved”; and
  • “Not pose risks to affected stakeholders, personnel or to legitimate requirements of commercial confidentiality”.

Companies are expected to communicate their performance on eliminating child labour in a formal public report, which can take a form of a standalone child labour report (e.g. Nestlé’s Tackling Child Labour reports). More commonly, however, an update on progress with eliminating child labour is included in a broader sustainability or human rights report (e.g. Unilever’s Human Rights reports), or in an annual Communication on Progress (CoP) in implementing the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact. Additionally, other forms of communication may include in-person meetings, online dialogues and consultation with affected stakeholders.

The ILO-IOE Child Labour Guidance Tool for Businesses includes detailed recommendations on the form and frequency of a company’s communications on child labour, the nature of provided information and the risks of communication to children and their families.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO and IOE, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: This tool has helpful guidance on how to report child labour approaches and results.
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), GRI408: Child Labor 2016: GRI sets out the reporting requirements on child labour for companies to achieve standard 408.
  • UNICEF, Children Are Everyone’s Business: Workbook 2.0: This workbook includes guidance on integrating children’s rights into sustainability reporting.
  • UNICEF, Children’s Rights in Sustainability Reporting: A Guide for Incorporating Children’s Rights into GRI-based Reporting: A practical tool to help companies with reporting and communicating on how they are respecting and supporting children’s rights.
  • UNGP Reporting Framework: A short series of smart questions (‘Reporting Framework’), implementation guidance for reporting companies, and assurance guidance for internal auditors and external assurance providers.
  • United Nations Global Compact, Communication on Progress (CoP): The CoP ensures further strengthening of corporate transparency and accountability, allowing companies to better track progress, inspire leadership, foster goal-setting and provide learning opportunities across the Ten Principles and SDGs.
  • The Sustainability Code: A framework for reporting on non-financial performance that includes 20 criteria, including on human rights and employee rights.

6. Remedy and Grievance Mechanisms

UNGP Requirements

As per the UNGPs, remedy and grievance mechanisms should include the following considerations:

  • “Where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes”.
  • “Operational-level grievance mechanisms for those potentially impacted by the business enterprise’s activities can be one effective means of enabling remediation when they meet certain core criteria.”

To ensure their effectiveness, grievance mechanisms should be:

  • Legitimate: “enabling trust from the stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and being accountable for the fair conduct of grievance processes”
  • Accessible: “being known to all stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended, and providing adequate assistance for those who may face particular barriers to access”
  • Predictable: “providing a clear and known procedure with an indicative time frame for each stage, and clarity on the types of process and outcome available and means of monitoring implementation”
  • Equitable: “seeking to ensure that aggrieved parties have reasonable access to sources of information, advice and expertise necessary to engage in a grievance process on fair, informed and respectful terms”
  • Transparent: “keeping parties to a grievance informed about its progress, and providing sufficient information about the mechanism’s performance to build confidence in its effectiveness and meet any public interest at stake”
  • Rights-compatible: “ensuring that outcomes and remedies accord with internationally recognized human rights”
  • A source of continuous learning: “drawing on relevant measures to identify lessons for improving the mechanism and preventing future grievances and harms”
  • Based on engagement and dialogue: “consulting the stakeholder groups for whose use they are intended on their design and performance, and focusing on dialogue as the means to address and resolve grievances”

Grievance mechanisms can play an important role in helping to remediate child labour issues in operations and supply chains. Grievance mechanisms should be:

  • Created with input from the affected groups they are intended to help;
  • Available in multiple formats and languages to accommodate workers’ needs. For instance, a high prevalence of migrant labour means a mechanism will need to be available in different languages, or illiteracy may require the mechanism to be explained to workers in a format other than writing (for example a video or presentation).

If instances of child labour are identified, corrective actions should be taken to protect the child from child labour and ensure that the child is not left in a worse situation due to loss of income. Ensuring viable alternatives is key. Child-focused actions can include:

  • Providing education alongside work if the child is above the minimum age, but if the child is below minimum age the child should be progressively withdrawn from child labour;
  • Removing the child but paying the wages they would have earned until they reach working age;
  • Assisting the child in finding education opportunities once removed from work; and
  • Assisting the child in finding employment opportunities upon reaching the legal working age.

Businesses may also want to consider cooperation with third parties to remediate child labour, including education officials, NGOs, public health officials and other companies using the same supply chain. In cases concerning the worst forms of child labour, this may even be a legal requirement. MSIs are also helpful in designing child labour remediation programmes, i.e. exchanging thoughts and ideas, and combining remediation efforts. Examples of companies with child labour remediation programmes include Nestlé and ASOS.

Helpful Resources
  • ILO and IEO, Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: This tool includes helpful guidance on remediation actions and grievance mechanisms for businesses.
  • ILO, Child Labour Platform: Good Practice Notes (particularly sections 4 and 5)Guidance on approaches for businesses to establish and implement remedial systems and actions.
  • ILO, Supplier Guidance on Preventing, Identifying and Addressing Child Labour: A practical guidance for factories and other production sites on remediating child labour.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Child Labour: A step-by-step guide for businesses on eliminating child labour in global supply chains, including Step 3 ‘Mitigation of risk and remediation for child workers’.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Access to Remedy: Practical Guidance for Companies: This guidance explains key components of the mechanisms that allow workers to submit complaints and enable businesses to provide remedy.
  • Global Compact Network Germany, Worth Listening: Understanding and Implementing Human Rights Grievance Management: A business guide intended to assist companies in designing effective human rights grievance mechanisms, including practical advice and case studies. Also available in German.
  • SME Compass: Provides advice on how to establish grievance mechanisms and manage complaints.