Published by Norway-Asia Business Review
Asian countries produce electronics and garments to be sent all over the world. Exporting products like this and increasing the number of local jobs helps grow the economies of developing countries. However, in Malaysia and more recently Myanmar, some workers in the manufacturing industries have found that they could use a hand to improve the vulnerable position they now find themselves in because of this growth.
The Center for Child-Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR) works with businesses to keep manufacturing safe for the workers, in particular from a child rights perspective. Businesses like HP, H&M and Varner recognise the need to protect their workers and their reputation. According to Executive Director Ms Ines Kämpfer, customers and investors (especially from Northern European countries) consider it important to produce in a sustainable and responsible manner. “The argument ‘we didn’t know’ doesn’t satisfy consumers any more.”
CCR CSR is active in China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Malaysia and will be extending their operations to Thailand this year. CCR CSR, a social enterprise set up within the Save the Children network, consults businesses about how to protect workers that are often young, migrants, have young children themselves, or all of the above. “We train businesses about having a positive impact on their workers, and workers about getting ahead and speaking up about difficulties.”
In Myanmar, CCR CSR’s work has a strong focus on child labour prevention but also on the need for factories to be open to hiring workers who’ve reached the legal working age. In many cases, first tier factories (often referred to as the “good factories” due to their compliance with international auditing protocols) opt to shun under 18s from the workforce altogether.
“In many countries it is legal for children under 18 to work after a certain age. Families often need the money and can’t afford to pay for education. If the best factories send these children away, they will likely end up working for worse factories or in the informal sector where there is no control at all. We encourage businesses to take responsibility for their young workers and to see the value in investing in youth development.”
In Myanmar one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 work instead of going to school. “In Myanmar there is a big gap in education; it is still a very poor country. Only 56% of children enrol into secondary school, which starts at the age of 10. 25% of them drop out, so that only 39% make it to upper secondary school.” According to Ms Kämpfer, education is being reformed at the moment. It has only recently been made mandatory, but it’s still not free so many families can’t pay for it. Additionally, there is pressure to start working early because the salary of the parents often is not enough to sustain the whole family.
Recent developments of opening Myanmar up to the international community have seen an influx of investments, but it has also highlighted the complexity of ensuring child-labour free supply chains. “We have seen reports of child labour or of juvenile workers working without the protection and special rights they legally deserve. It is a challenge for companies to know how to deal with the young workers. In Myanmar it is legal for children at the age of 14 to work for 4 hours a day. After the age of 16 they can work longer, but only with a doctor’s certificate stating they are fit to work and under a set of protective regulations. We are working with foreign buyers to establish factory management systems that do take into account the legal requirements and what that means for child protection.”
“Taking responsibility doesn’t just entail having guards to turn away children. Preventing child labour means supporting the growth of the economy in a sustainable way and specifically support youth programs. Companies could offer classes to the young workers so they have a chance later on to decide what they want to do. Let’s say a 15-year-old worker dropped out at the age of 11. By then it’s not possible to reintegrate in regular education, but the factory could make sure there is no overtime and offer classes so that when they are 18 years they have options.”
“In the short term it might seem better to families to have additional income from working children, but in reality this only perpetuates the situation since children don’t go to school and are stuck in low paying jobs for the rest of their lives. So we also train the older workers to speak up when they see a worker that’s too young. Often it’s difficult to estimate the age for companies because of forged ID’s. Speaking up teaches the older workers that often have children themselves that they should not send their young children to factories.”
“When a worker is identified that is too young we teach the factories to send them to initiatives that support them. Companies don’t have to become social workers themselves, but they should link up with social initiatives. Myanmar has a social work program by Save the Children and UNICEF. There also is a mobile education program for education via smartphones and a few good initiatives from local monastery schools.” CCR CSR is also currently implementing a Child Labour Response Action Project that aims to create systematic change in the way child labour prevention and remediation is handled in Myanmar.
In Malaysia, children are working age from 16 years and older. As well as being young, they are also often migrants. In Malaysia, it is thought that migrant workers account for about 40% of the country’s workforce, with a substantial number of these people finding work in the electronics sector. Many of them are young, female workers out on their first job, leaving them vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. “We work with brands and their suppliers to introduce trainings in factories that target both the workers themselves and the management. Ensuring management understands the challenges young workers face is a crucial first step in creating decent working conditions.”
“With our training program we teach supervisors to be more understanding and apply very practical communication skills so the girls feel safe to speak their minds. The girls are trained about professional behaviour, how to get ahead, and be more proactive. Of the girls that received the training more of them have advanced to higher positions in the company a few years down the line. One of the businesses we work with in Malaysia is HP.”
The efforts of CCR CSR, local initiatives and companies have had an impact over the years. According to Ms Kämpfer more factories have gained awareness about the value of investing in youth development and many factories are embracing child labour prevention and remediation practices that consider the best interest of the child. However, the work is far from done.
“In some cases we have pushed the problem down to subcontractors or the informal sectors. Child labour has become more hidden in those instances, and some of the worst cases have been found down the line. In general, the problem has improved also because of economic growth, but companies should dig deeper now and also look at the activities of their subcontractors. There actually is more demand for transparency about the complete production line nowadays. Additionally, checking the activities of all manufacturing chains increases product quality and prevents environmental issues.”
CCR CSR conducts studies and shares the findings with the members of their working groups. Gaining insight in the complete production line can be difficult and requires some additional work. “The working groups consist of companies to discuss best practices and approaches during meetings in Hong Kong. We share our studies and create guidelines together with the members, like the recent guidelines on Juvenile & Young Workers. The working groups are a source of information for many participants and there also is an online working group that comes together via webinar and enables participants to join from all over the world.”
One of the participants of the working groups is Norwegian firm Varner. Varner is in the garment industry and has been working with CCR CSR since 2014. “Companies sometimes will integrate the tips in their factories or create programs to strengthen children’s rights. In China we have seen one of the most child friendly factories with its own school for workers and children of workers. Families live together on the campus of the factory.”
- The Center for Child-Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR) works with businesses to develop and implement sustainability strategies, programmes and projects that permanently improve the lives of children, young workers and working migrant parents in their supply chains.
- Download guidelines for young workers at CCR CSR Services on Juvenile Workers.pdf
- 60% of workers in the manufacturing industry in Malaysia are migrants.
- Myanmar has one of the highest rates of child labour in the world.
- Sign up to the working group of CCR CSR by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Membership is for the duration of a year, and requires a small membership fee.
- Minimum attendance of three meetings.
- Working Group attendees are required to sign a NDA and MOU.