Connecting the dots: child rights, human rights & environmental due diligence
With various initiatives and campaigns around Europe calling for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence—including in the UK—it is rapidly becoming a hot topic for discussion among companies, policymakers, and NGOs working on responsible business issues. But why do we need a law on this in the UK? Where do children’s rights fit? And how could mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence benefit your company?
At the end of 2020, the UK Committee for UNICEF (UNICEF UK) published a report outlining how new legislation in the UK requiring businesses to take preventive action to avoid child rights abuses and environmental harms and providing access to justice could ensure respect for child rights around the world.
In February 2021, UNICEF UK and the UN Global Compact Network UK organised a webinar to discuss the successes and challenges for companies in integrating child rights into their human rights and environmental due diligence (HREDD) and how a new law in the UK making HREDD mandatory could drive responsible business behaviour towards children in the UK and abroad. UNICEF UK, Marshalls, and twentyfifty shared their views.
This blog sets out some of the key reflections shared during the webinar on what it takes to look at child rights within businesses and the role of legislation in the UK.
Why children’s rights are important for business
Businesses can affect children’s rights in many ways. They can affect them directly, for example through the exploitation of child labour, or indirectly, for instance by not providing decent working conditions to parents and caregivers or contributing to factors that harm children.
For example, mining projects have localised environmental impacts (dust; erosion; surface water, ground, and soil contamination; among others) that have the potential to cause skin, eye, and respiratory diseases in children. The incomplete physical development of children’s bodies makes them more vulnerable to these environmental impacts. Also, children are more likely to ingest pollutants as they spend more time playing outside than adults, because of their hand to mouth behaviour, and depending on their stage of mental development, their ability to read or understand warning and hazard signs.
This is just one example of negative impacts on children that business could avoid or mitigate by conducting HREDD that integrates child rights. However, the HREDD conducted by companies often does not also work for children because children are unlikely to be considered as separate and independent stakeholders.
Why HREDD does not always work for child rights
When considering the different steps of HREDD, there are key areas where a failure to integrate a child rights lens means that child rights impacts remain invisible and neglected.
Human rights impact assessments by companies do not necessarily take into account how negative impacts are experienced differently by children compared to adults. For example, air pollution might not be considered a severe impact of an operation for adults, but when considering children as a separate stakeholder, this becomes a severe negative impact for the company to consider and prioritise action.
Moreover, mitigation measures to address identified negative impacts might not adequately take into consideration how they may apply to children. For example, in the agricultural sector, the provision of PPE for workers can be an effective measure to mitigate workplace health and safety risks. However, these might not be sufficient to protect child workers, for example, because they are too big or they are in the wrong shape.
Finally, grievance mechanisms are also not tailored for use by children; for example, children are less likely than adults to use the phone to express a concern to strangers. A 2018 tool by UNICEF recommends that the process of creating and implementing child-sensitive operational-level grievance mechanisms involves children in their design and shaping, ensures that there is expertise on dealing with children and children’s rights at hand, and more.
Where we are now
While the integration of child rights considerations into HREDD by companies is still not common practice, the experiences of businesses which have tried to adopt this approach give us insight into what companies could achieve and what needs to happen next.
At the Children’s Rights in Mandatory HR and Environmental Due Diligence webinar in February 2021, UN Global Compact Network UK member companies, twentyfifty and Marshalls shared their experience of integrating child rights into their work, from impact assessments to the wider business decisions. Key takeaways from their presentations include:
- Considering children as distinct stakeholders in companies’ human rights impact assessments allows businesses to understand how children might experience impacts differently and therefore to better tailor their response to these impacts.
- Consulting with children is valuable and important. However, this requires companies to pay attention to child protection and safeguarding. This can be overcome by collaborating with relevant local NGOs, UN agencies, and social workers.
- National legislation and international standards play a critical role in helping businesses grapple with the complexities of human rights impacts and engage with these issues more thoughtfully and comprehensively. Legislation also enables for a level playing field among companies so that companies who try hard to uphold their responsibilities are not penalised.
- Commitment to children’s rights from the top level of the company will ensure that effective action is taken across the whole business.
To learn more about Marshalls’ respect and support for children’s rights, you can read their Children’s Rights Policy Statement, response to Children’s Rights and Business Principles, and booklet about child labour in the Indian sandstone industry, as well as Ethical Trading Initiative’s article about Marshalls’ efforts to tackle child labour in India.
The way forward
HREDD can be an effective way for the private sector to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms and to have a better understanding of their wider impacts on the communities in which they operate. This is even more true when children’s rights are integrated into the process, as demonstrated by the examples shared during the webinar.
However, while some companies have adopted this approach, there is still a long way to go before we achieve the desired outcome and the majority of businesses are conducting HREDD as standard practice. Voluntary approaches do not bring the scale of impact and speed required to bring change in the lives of children and protect the planet. All panellists agreed that legislation mandating human rights and environmental due diligence in the UK is needed as a way forward. The UN Global Compact also strongly supports such initiatives.
Mandatory HREDD would also create a level playing field among companies because currently there is no way to differentiate between those companies who are trying hard to respect child rights and the environment and those who are not. For example, several other UN Global Compact Network UK member companies, like ASOS and M&S, consider child rights in their human rights risk assessments, but this is not the norm across the business sector in the UK.
A robust and effective law mandating HREDD that integrates child rights and provides access to justice would also clarify business responsibilities, reward those who are taking action to uphold their human rights responsibilities, and sanction those who abuse child rights and harm the environment.
Businesses play an essential role in ensuring that the rights of children and the environment are respected through their activities and their operations. But they can also contribute by making their voice heard to the UK Government on the need for legislation to level the playing field and ensure that respect for child rights and the environment are rewarded, not penalised.
If you want to know more about mandatory human rights due diligence and child rights or how you can support our call to the UK Government to introduce this legislation, contact Maria Pia Bianchetti, Private Sector Policy and Influencing Manager, UNICEF UK
The UN Global Compact Network UK’s Child Labour Working Group convenes quarterly and is still accepting members to the group. Meetings focus on practical actions companies can take to address child rights-related issues and child labour in global supply chains. Companies who want to find out more and/or register their interest can contact Benafsha Delgado, Senior Programme Manager, Business & Human Rights.