Rights of Children and Business Responsibility

Child rights is everyone's business and needs to be the ideology of every business. And the powerful and the richest businesses have a much greater responsibility than the rest.

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In discussion with a local programme team of child rights activists in Dindugal, Tamil Nadu, it was stated that “if a local caterer refuses to organise wedding lunch; if the Mandapam owner refuses to let out the marriage hall, if the local priest refuses to offer services, would a child marriage even happen? It is possible that the marriage party will find alternatives in this high-supply characterised market, but won’t the reluctance by these businesses send a clear message to the family that what they are doing is widely abhorred?” The point is that though some businesses make money out of several child rights violations, including child labour and child marriage, they also have an opportunity to demonstrate their corporate citizenship.

It took a few decades to transform the state–people relationship from that between State that runs the schemes and people being beneficiaries to a relationship where the state is the duty bearer and people as citizens are rights holders. The relationship between the business and the people must follow a similar trajectory as the soonest.

People, including children, are workers and consumers and are part of families which have given up or give up, often forcefully, their rights on land, forest, water, air and environment to infrastructural projects or businesses directly for factories, mills and plants. The CSR narrative added an additional component of people being beneficiaries of corporate largesse. It is important to understand that businesses are more than just responsible citizens under the corporate citizenship narrative. Still, they also have a definite role as duty bearers to the citizens who are rights holders as workers in the value chain, as consumers, as investors and as communities.

Similarly, children are rights holders as consumers who need to be aware of addiction vulnerability in labelling all corporate products and services, from alcohol to tobacco to gaming devices. They are right holders as a community that need to know the environmental harms of the business operations and the potential damage to their health. They have the right to be freed from slavery and bondage, often intergenerational. Children have the right that their social identity of caste and gender should not be the basis for assigning privilege or inflicting discrimination. Every time a business leverages the caste system or patriarchy in its advertisement or marketing, it should know that it perpetuates inter-generational bondage. Suppose the Board of Directors or Senior Management Personnel in companies are all from among a few dominant Jatis and gender. In that case, it is leveraging and perpetuating their already strong networks, thereby causing perpetual harm to the identity of a Dalit girl child. In other words, child rights is not an alien domain for businesses. In 2012, UNICEF, Global Compact, and Save the Children came out with Ten Child Rights and Business Principles, which forced companies to look at child rights beyond child labour. 

As per the periodic Corporate Responsibility Watch study on the top 100 listed companies in 2020, 30 companies disclosed that their supplier code explicitly prohibits child labour in the supply chain. While in 2017, six companies already committed to Living Wage for all their employees, in 2019, 69 companies recognised Freedom of Association in their policy commitments. These companies ensure that they commit to practising child rights and business principles. They are not worried about whether there is a business case for adopting these principles. For them, these are their standards as corporate citizens and corporate duty bearers. They, of course, deserve a level-playing field – a field where every business is duty-bound to protect and promote child rights. How can this happen? Business chambers and associations must stand up for child rights and incorporate these as non-negotiable to be empanelled as their member. The Government is today the largest business person in every country. As an investor, may the Government not seek commitment to Children’s Rights and Business Principles(CRBP) from all its investees? As a procurer, may it not seek demonstrable commitment from all vendors by listing this as non-negotiable guidelines in the Government E-Marketplace? As a public sector undertaking, may it not release an annual report against each of the ten principles as part of Business Responsibility and Sustainability Reporting(BRSR) disclosure? May these reports not be analysed and reported by a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights or Women or Scheduled Caste/Tribes?

Finally, we must understand that the three decades of globalisation have blurred the nation-state boundaries. Child rights violations in the Global South may have their causes in the purchasing practices and inappropriate appropriation of profits at the Global North part of the value chain. May every multinational company do business with or in the Global South not disclose how they determine price, what pricing component is being allocated for developing a child rights-friendly value chain, and how losses are distributed during distress? CRBP cannot be implemented comprehensively in just a specific local setting. When a local caterer in Dindugal displays a board saying that they cater for weddings, except child marriages, she makes a Statement. It is her ideology. She does not need a business case. Child rights is everyone’s business and needs to be the ideology of every business. And the powerful and the richest businesses have a much greater responsibility than the rest.