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Our Passive Acceptance of Child Labour Skip to main content

Our Passive Acceptance of Child Labour

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

Dante Alighieri, Italian national epic poet (1265 – 1321)

A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) post, Why Companies Are Blind to Child Labor, got my blood boiling, and reminded me of this quote warning us that our passive acceptance of child labour abuses by producers must be stopped.  Dante actually never wrote this specifically, though the reference it comes from is provided at the end of this blog.  Dante’s Inferno does describe a place for neutrals, though it is not in hell… it is just outside it.  In effect, the neutrals have been rejected by both heaven and hell.  This subtlety curiously represents our own personal, and frequently corporate, offensive passive acceptance of child labour.

Our Passive Acceptance of Child Labour


“This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”


The Amnesty International report “uncovered a number of cases of child labor among suppliers linked to major technology companies, including Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as to several automotive manufactures, such as Volkswagen and Daimler AG… In conducting the report, Amnesty International reached out to the implicated companies to ask about child labor in their supply chains and received a common response: Apple and Microsoft said they are unable to verify whether their products use cobalt from the DRC. Daimler said the same, claiming it is unable to verify such information ‘due to the high complexity of automotive supply chains.’  Samsung SDI, which supplies batteries to both Samsung and Apple, also said determining whether its cobalt is mined in the DRC is impossible.”

Seriously?  In today’s day and age, with the systems and informatics available, you cannot determine whether you source from child labour abusers?  That screams of being accepting of child labour.  I would be more than willing to pay more for products that do not employ child labour.  I imagine if one gave consumers the same choice, the vast majority would do so as well.  This would also help the company’s brand image, as opposed to the excuse that investigating these claims is too difficult.


Cobb’s Paradox refers to a curious observation that:

We know why projects fail.
We know how to prevent their failure.
So why do they still fail?
What are the problems / issues?

An interesting response is that we all know what the problems and solutions are… Traditionally the “medicine” prescribed by those who “understand the problem” has generally been rejected by the “patient” as being “too strongSo is the medicine actually too strong for these “leading” corporations?

The Nonsensical Challenge

The “complexity” and “challenges” described by these leading firms appear is hypocritical considering their corporate expertise, and is blatantly offensive.  The model is not that complicated as outlined below:

Exhibit 1: Flow chart of generic supply chain (Amnesty International, page 42, 2016)

The following potential DRC Cobalt supply chain from publicly available information was researched by Amnesty International and once again does not demonstrate a terribly complicated system that cannot be transparently audited… unless “we” consciously choose to ignore it or except it is not worth the “investment”.

Exhibit 2: Movement of cobalt from artisanal mines in the DRC to the global market (Amnesty International, page 46, 2016)

Examples of Corporate Acceptance of Child Labour

The following corporations were identified as having potential relationships in the DRC Cobalt supply chain:

Exhibit 3: POTENTIAL DRC COBALT SUPPLY CHAIN According to publicly available information (Amnesty international, page 55, 2016)

A simplified representation is outlined below of the major corporations implicated:

Exhibit 4: DRC Cobalt Supply Chain (https://youtu.be/7x4ASxHIrEA)

Apparently though these companies have been called out, the situation is still too complex for them to resolve.  Perhaps these producers feel that we as consumers do not care enough about this to take a stand, and that most of their competitors are not making an issue of it either.

It is important to reinforce though that this form of child labour represents the worst forms as defined by Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182.  Specifically section (d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.  Once again:

Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment.

This is not the casual child work that could be considered ethically appropriate (Mitchell, 2013).  I would strongly recommend reading the World Vision Australia  (2012) paper Unlucky for some: 13 myths about child labour. to aid in any discussion around the ethically acceptable situations for child labour.

What can these corporations do?

It is not as if this is an overly complex issue to resolve.  There is clear guidance as outlined below, and there are SA8000 auditors available as one example of a leading approach to dealing with this issue.

“The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights set out the responsibility of companies to respect international human rights in their global operations, including in their supply chains. This requires, amongst other things, that companies carry out human rights due diligence ‘to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights.’

A practical guide for how such due diligence should be carried out for supply chains has been provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas (OECD Guidance) lays out a five-step process for all companies involved in the mineral supply chain to follow. Companies that purchase cobalt, or components containing the mineral, have no excuse for not conducting such due diligence steps.”


What can we do?

As offended as I am personally by this, this practice is not uncommon.  One issue is the awareness of the ongoing existence of child labour and what organizational options there are.

We have these discussions while we facilitate PSM3 sustainability awareness sessions with companies and ask questions such as if they support child and slave labour by purchasing from suppliers who employ child and slave labour?  All the companies answer in the negative, but there is seldom a formal policy or a requirement in contracts to ensure that child or slave labour is not employed in the supply chain, because no one can guarantee it and it is too complicated to enforce.  In the end, as highlighted in the HBR post, the problem tends to be wilful ignorance.  This approach is taken in order to “avoid potentially costly consequences, such as having to launch internal investigations.  This wilful ignorance does not mean that companies won’t correct wrongdoings when they become obvious; they just may not seek them out when such cases are hidden.”  It is not impossible, though.

GPM Global recently conducted an assessment in Australia for a manufacturing organization that sourced from China. They frequently conduct on-site audits of their suppliers and can confidently say that their suppliers’ facilities are clinically clean, workers are treated well and compensated, and there are no issues of slave or child labour, or questionable labour practices.  So this risk can be mitigated at a nominal cost.



This is something that we all can become involved in.  Make your concerns known.  Purchase from ethical corporations. If you are a purchaser for an organization ensure that the organization has a policy on child and slave labour, and ask your suppliers to confirm that they do not employ child or slave labour in their supply chain.



Definition of Child Labour – ILO Conventions and Recommendations

The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

It refers to work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and
  • interferes with their schooling by:
  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
  • requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.


Whilst child labour takes many different forms, a priority is to eliminate without delay the worst forms of child labour as defined by Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182:

(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;

(d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Labour that jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, is known as “hazardous work”.



Dante’s Inferno, canto iii

“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”
And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them –
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”
And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.
Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto iii (ca. 1317)(C. Langdon transl. 1918)

(Horton, 2010)



Amnesty International. (2016). Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/Child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/

Amnesty International. (2016). “This is what We Die for”: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr62/3183/2016/en/

Barnett, R. & Espinosa-Vega, M. (2005) “Barriers to Capital Accumulation and the Incidence of Child Labor”, Working Paper, International Monetary Fund, p.l, as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

Basu, K. & Van, P.H. (1998) “The Economics of Child Labor”, American Economic Review, Vol.88, pp.412-427, as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

Goto, H. (2011), “Social Norms, Inequality and Child Labor”, The Journal of Socio-Economics, Volume 40, Issue 6, pp.806-814, as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

Horton, S. (2010). Dante – The Curse on Those Who Do Nothing in the Face of Evil. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from http://harpers.org/blog/2010/10/dante-the-curse-on-those-who-do-nothing-in-the-face-of-evil

International Labour Organisation (ILO) (2013) “Marking progress against child labour”. Retrieved February 3, 2016, from http://www.ilo.org/ipec/lnformationresources/WCMS_221513/lang–en/index.htm

International Trade Union Confederation (2010) “Union View”, No.18, p.8, as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

Mitchell, L. (2013). Why Child Labor Isn’t Always Bad. Retrieved February 9, 2016, from http://www.ethicsdaily.com/why-child-labor-isnt-always-bad-cms-21240

United Nations General Assembly (20 November 1989) “Text of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Article 32(1), as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

World Economic Forum (2013) “The Human Capital Report”, p.l, as noted in World Vision (2014) “Creating markets for child-friendly growth: Addressing child labour through G20 procurement”.

World Vision Australia. (2012). Unlucky for some: 13 myths about child labour. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from https://www.worldvision.com.au/docs/default-source/school-resources/myths-about-child-labour.pdf

Zane, D., Irwin, J., & Reczek, R. W. (2016). Why Companies Are Blind to Child Labor. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2016/01/why-companies-are-blind-to-child-labor



Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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