Child labour: An approach to corporate best practice
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Nigeria estimates that about 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria.
Child labour, as the practice is called, exposes children to hazards and deters their development. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as “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,” and describes it as “hazardous work”. In developing countries especially, poverty is a major factor responsible for child labour. UNICEF notes that over time children have gone from traditionally working with their families to being forced to work for their own survival and for their families’ income. Child labour deprives a child of education or impairs schooling. Other consequences are exposure to sexual abuse and involvement in crime. Also, working children are denied benefits by their employers.
The US Department of Labour, in its 2010 report, claimed that Nigeria is witnessing the worst forms of child labour, particularly in agriculture and domestic service. It notes that in rural areas, most children are involved in the farming of cassava, cocoa, tobacco, and oil palm, among other staples.
On the other hand, some experts have attributed recent trends in child labour to the global economic meltdown of 2008 and the consequent financial dire straits it pushed people into.
Although adults and child labourers face the same health risks, the latter do so on a much higher scale. Children by their nature are often more vulnerable to certain work conditions that adults can endure.
The Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) marked the first major international consensus on the fundamental principles of children’s rights. It shields children from all forms of exploitation, especially politically and economically. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was developed by ILO, addresses issues such as minimum age for admission to employment and the worst forms of child labour. Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child alongside 195 other countries. The pact notwithstanding, child labour persists in the country just as it does in many developing countries and indeed some developed countries such as Canada.
Although there is legislation that caters to child labour in Nigeria under the Child Rights Act, the willpower to implement it has been lacking, clearly indicating that the menace is far from being over.
Children are reportedly working in farms that have cash crops as their mainstay. The difference between working in cash crop farms and others is that the income that ought to legitimately go to the child labourers doesn’t get to them because they are too young to demand for their wages. In the case of food crops, the children may be working to get food directly from farms for their families.
Researchers on child labour have often accused tobacco firms of feigning ignorance of the practice, or of never investigating operations at the plantations, in spite of being aware that child labour is rife. They are also accused of not tracking the source of the tobacco they purchase, thereby making it difficult to ascertain that it is not by the sweat of a child’s brow.
In recent years, the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) has leveraged its sustainability award, tagged BATN Farmers’ Awards, to change this impression and lead the charge against child labour. The company’s sustainability award, which has been on for 12 years now, is an initiative designed to celebrate tobacco farmers for their dedication to stopping child labour practices and other agreed criteria.
This year’s award, which held on May 30, 2017 in Ibadan, Oyo State, brought together over 250 farmers from Oyo State. The award ceremony platform was used to reemphasise the ills of child labour and the benefits of sound education for the children of tobacco farmers. It also celebrated and rewarded farmers for their commitment to complying with policies and regulations on child labour and for their productivity.
In his welcome address, the Area Operations Manager, BAT West Africa, Charles Kyalo, stressed the company’s zero tolerance for child labour in tobacco farming, while explaining why it placed priority on child labour compliance in this year’s awards ceremony.
“As part of the company’s supplier Code of Conduct, which is a subset of our Standards of Business Conduct, we do not support child labour in tobacco farming operations. To ensure full compliance, farmers must produce a document that shows their children attended school during the growing season, which is also validated through unannounced spot checks,” he said.
He added that, “To further signify the importance BAT places on the prevention of child labour, this year’s Farmers’ Award is themed, ‘End Child Labour,’ to advocate against the use of children of school going age in tobacco farming.”
He also noted that apart from child labour compliance, the company supports efforts by the farmers to increase productivity and produce food crops alongside tobacco farming, and to protect and conserve the natural forests. These efforts, he said, were being rewarded through the award of numerous prizes such as motorcycles, pumping machines, water tanks, sprayers and mobile phones.
Corroborating this view, BATN Legal and External Affairs Director, West Africa, Freddy Messanvi, stated that the company was strengthening its outreach against child labour through seminars to educate farmers on the dangers of child labour, while also exploring ethical ways of integrating children into their family businesses.
“Given the nature of our environment, parents are eager for their children to continue the family business and this is sometimes at the detriment of the children’s education. ‘End Child Labour’ is not just the theme for this year’s award ceremony, but it is a necessary way of working, which we at BATN take seriously,” he said.
Some of the recipients of the award were full of gratitude to BATN. Chairman, Nigerian Independent Tobacco Association (NITA), Mr Rasheed Bakare, who received a handset, appreciated BATN for the kind gesture. “I am glad to testify that BATN has been doing this in the past 12 years. This gesture is a great incentive to us and gives us great delight in our chosen profession,” he said.
Mr. Bakare, who attributed his success and that of members of his farmers group to obedience to the laid down guidelines regarding child labour, amongst others, by the company, noted that most of those who won awards at the ceremony complied with the regulations.
“Compliance to laid down guidelines instilled discipline in us, thereby helping us to ensure best practices in tobacco farming and in the cultivation of other food crops and boost our productivity most of us to meet the criteria for the awards. I particularly saw to it that no member of our group used children as part of their workforce,” he said.
A recipient of one of the nine motorcycles on offer, Bashiru Salau, expressed confidence in its utility, saying, “Every smallholder farmer knows the importance of motorcycle in agric business. It will, no doubt, aid mobility for me. It is a vital farm machinery. I can easily transport myself from my house to my farm, which is quite a distance away.”
“Of course, I couldn’t have done this all alone, but for the special grace of God who empowered me to engage the services of hired labourers to assist me with some farm activities during the season,” he said further.
No doubt, BATN, through its long and close association with tobacco farmers, has been able to develop effective mechanism for monitoring them and checking the menace of child labour in tobacco farms. It is expected that the keen competition that the awards engender among tobacco farmers will motivate them and other farmers to sustain the policy and defeat the age-long notion that children must work in their parents’ farms in order to sustain the family’s income and livelihood.
As ILO commemorates this year’s World Day Against Child Labour with the theme, ‘In Conflicts and Disasters, Protect Children from Child Labour,’ the onus is on government to show greater political will in fighting the scourge in the country.
* Ama is a public affairs commentator in Lagos