Child labour is on the rise: How can SROI help us measure impact and tackle Child Labour?

The following blog was written by Social Value International’s Membership and Networks Manager, Becca Harvey.

For the first time in two decades, the number of children being put to work has risen – to 160 million worldwide, representing an increase of 8.4 million over four years – while millions of other are at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Child labour harms children mentally, physically, socially, and morally. It interferes with their schooling, preventing them from attending or concentrating, may involve them being enslaved, separated from their families, and exposed to serious hazards and illnesses. Quite simply, it deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity.  

Tackling child labour and protecting the rights of children is a key commitment of world leaders, countries and groups globally. Under the SDGs, Child Labour is specifically mentioned as a key SDG Target – 8.7: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms” and in July 2019, the General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. The resolution highlights the member States’ commitments “to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”  

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is the most widely accepted international human rights treaty in history, “children have the right to be protected from work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”  

Yet despite this, globally more than 1 in 10 children (or 160 million) between the ages of 5-17 are in child labour and for the first time in 20 years, this is on the rise.  

Child Labour in the Supply Chain

In a background paper Mapping Child Labour Risks in Global Supply Chains:  An Analysis of the Apparel, Electronics and Agricultural Sectors, published by UNICEF in 2019, it was highlighted that across the sectors analysed, child labour was present within all supply chains.  

Agriculture has been found to be the sector responsible for the largest amount of child labour worldwide. According to the recent International Labour Organization (ILO) data, more than 112 million children aged 5–17 years work in agriculture, including in farming, fishing, aquaculture, forestry and livestock. This accounts for approximately 70 per cent of child labourers in the world.  

The prevalence on child labour in agriculture also has profound impacts on other sectors, including the garment and fashion industry. In recent years we have seen a growth of brands such as H&M creating “sustainable” clothing lines and increased traceability in their supply chains. Much of this growth of “green”, “sustainable” and “transparent” fashion within the fashion industry is a result of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500.  Yet despite an increased awareness of supply chains in the fashion industry one study examining the role of child labour in the Indian cotton sector estimated that children carry out 90 per cent of the activities in Indian cottonseed and that rather than declining, the number of children working to produce cottonseed in India has grown by as much as 25 per cent over the last decade. In 2015, an estimated 500,000 children were working in cottonseed cultivation, of which half were under the age of 14.  

The use of child labour in agriculture also has profound implications for the tobacco industry. The US Department of Labor lists 16 countries where children are suspected to work in tobacco and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented child labor in the tobacco fields in Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Brazil and most recently Zimbabwe

In a recent investigation by The Guardian it was found that: 

Yet despite the rampant child labour within the tobacco industry, all the four major tobacco companies say they are doing what they can – and this is not applicable only to the tobacco industry. Across all sectors, one of the reasons that child labour is not effectively tackled within the supply chain is because when companies have attempted to address child labour in their supply chain, the traditional response has been to look at the issues closest at hand. This is typically the Tier 1 supply chain, where the link between the buyer and supplier is clear and direct, where responsibility for labour practices seems more defined, and where contractual relationships can help to provide leverage to influence and change practices in accordance with buyer expectations or standards. However, as illustrated in the UNICEF report, the Tier 1 supply chain is usually not where the greatest risk to children exists within a company’s entire supply chain. Therefore, companies need to consider how to affect the greatest risks to children where they currently exist, rather than where it is most convenient to act. 

Looking beyond the supply chain to tackle child labour: Case Studies from ECLT

Tackling child labour in the supply chain is vital if we are to meet our goals to eliminate child labour by 2025. However, it is important to remember that this is a systemic problem with complex root causes, which make it a global challenge across sectors and cultures. Poverty, social instability, low levels of education and awareness, insufficient decent work opportunities and poor social programmes are some of the main factors that cause child labour around the world. In the last 18 months additional economic shocks and school closures caused by COVID-19 mean that children already obliged or forced to work, may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while job and income losses among vulnerable families may push many more into the worst forms of child labour.   

When looking at agriculture in particular, ILO statistics show that most child labour takes place within the family unit and child labour in agriculture is found in both subsistence and commercial farming. In many crops, including tobacco, it is common for children to work alongside their parents.  In order to tackle child labour in agriculture and in the supply chains linked to these (including tobacco) it is important to go beyond simply looking at removal of child labour from the supply chain. This is because such a narrow approach can result in children moving from one field to another – thus not actually preventing child labour from taking place. Instead, it is vital that area-based, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder approaches are adopted to tackle the root causes. 

The ECLT Foundation, an independent Swiss foundation brings together key stakeholders against child labour in the tobacco-growing supply chain is one organisation that is working to tackle child labour across the world. ECLT uses a multi-stakeholder approach, focusing on area-based projects and strengthening of local and national systems to fight child labour. 

In a recent blog, ECLT highlighted the work they have done using SROI to measure and manage the impact of their work and in 2020 they “drew conclusions from the results of social return on investment studies (SROI) that were conducted in Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi to streamline the Foundation’s programme approach. This short video, demonstrates why measuring social value and using SROI was important to ECLT, and has enabled them to better understand, measure and manage their impact on the reduction of child labour.  

The SROI Reports of each of these projects can be found below: 

Malawi SROI

Tanzania SROI

Uganda SROI

It is clear, that tackling child labour is of huge importance – not only to achieve the SDGs, but also to ensure that the futures of millions of children globally are protected. For Social Value International, we urge all organisations focused on tackling child labour to: 

A) look within their own supply chains, as deeply as possible, to ensure that child labour as no place in any level of the supply chain. However, within this, a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral, area-based approach will be required in order to ensure the root causes of child labour are addressed and tackled, rather than just moving the issue from one challenge to another.  

B) ensure that impact measurement and management systems are embedded into any activity aimed at reducing (the risk of) child labour. Only by effective measurement and management of impact, are we truly able to understand if the actions and interventions we take, are making the difference needed to eradicate child labour – forever.  


The implementation of ECLT’s SROI was supported by Social Value International’s Partner, Envoy Partnerships who outline the approach taken here. Envoy Partnership have founded the Social Value in Development and Humanitarian Aid (SVDHA) Working Group, and more information about this group can be found here.

12th June was the World Day Against Child Labour. 

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