Wearing a soccer jersey of his favorite team, Mehmet, 14, flashes a bright smile as he talks about his life and daily routine.

“This is how you bend the branches and pick the hazelnuts, one by one,” he says, stretching to grab one of the lower branches of the tree. 

He is one of thousands of children who help harvest hazelnuts in Turkey, where three-quarters of the world’s hazelnuts are grown. They work with their families, moving from crop to crop, following the harvest, living in campsites that lack even basic services. As for school, children like Mehmet want to stay in class and keep up with their age group. But the reality is that work prevents Mehmet and others like him from attending school regularly, and having to move when the harvest is over makes getting a quality education a long shot.

Mehmet’s story is, unfortunately, not uncommon. He is one of millions of children who are trapped in child labor in supply chains. They can be found working in mining and quarrying, in construction, services, agriculture (where 99 million work) and manufacturing, in every region in the world. Though data are scarce, we know that a significant portion of the 168 million children trapped in child labor are working in supply chains.

That is why the theme of the 2016 World Day against Child Labor, celebrated every year on June 12, is ending child labor in supply chains.

It is a major challenge, but there is real cause for hope. Child labor has declined by one-third from 2002 to 2012.  What’s more, we now have a good understanding about what works in the fight against child labor. A key lesson is that policy matters, and a smart mix of government policies can achieve rapid gains.

Policy coherence is essential. Governments must provide free, compulsory, quality, basic education at least up to the minimum age for work. They must adopt and enforce good laws and policies against child labor, and make strategic linkages between labor inspection, tracking of school enrolment and attendance and other relevant public services such as agricultural extension workers to ensure children are out of child labou. Mainstreaming child labor concerns into social protection, rural development and other relevant programmes has been a main driver in the reduction of child labor.

Coherence is important for companies, too. They must send a clear signal of zero tolerance of child labor, and back that up with their business practices and dealings with suppliers. This is the right thing to do, and it is an important way companies affirm their values and their commitment to human rights. Tackling child labor may seem to be a daunting task, but for employers, it is simply about knowing what is happening throughout their supply chains and taking appropriate measures to address any child labor that may occur. This is the common expectation of business in the 21st century.

Mehmet’s story is another cause for hope for it does not end in that humid hazelnut orchard. CAOBISCO, an industry association of companies including major hazelnut buyers, partnered with the International Labour Office (ILO) and local government to ensure that quality education is available to children of migrant workers. The Turkish government stepped up its labor inspection visits at the same time, and adopted a policy to eliminate child labor in seasonal agriculture, recognizing that when families move from hazelnut growing areas to harvest other crops, education and other services need to be available there too.

Community empowerment and improving livelihoods are fundamental. In West Africa, in cooperation with major chocolate companies, the ILO has supported cocoa growing communities to organize child labour monitoring committees, create community action plans and secure funding for their implementation from district governments.  Workers’ organizations have expanded their membership and help small farmers and workers improve safety on farms, get access to social security, and boost productivity. Cooperatives have been strengthened, and these allow farmers to get better prices on inputs, introduce new technologies and pool resources. 

Of course, there is no quick fix, and companies can benefit from learning from each other’s experience and initiating joint efforts. The Coca-Cola Company is a member of the Child Labor Platform, a business-led forum for exchange of experience and coordinated action to tackle child labor in supply chains. Co-chaired by the International Organization of Employers and the International Trade Union Confederation and hosted by the International Labor Office and UN Global Compact, the CLP is an incubator for new approaches to this age old problem. 

Benjamin Smith
There is an enormous amount of experience in preventing and eliminating child labor. If we are to achieve the goal set in Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, of eliminating all forms of child labour by 2025, we must learn from it and use it to accelerate the pace of progress. 

Benjamin Smith is senior specialist, child labor, for ILO-IPEC, part of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch.