Centre of attention - China and Children's rights

young migrant worker in China
Jonathan Browning

In 2009, Save the Children Sweden established a centre for child rights and business in China (Centre for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility, CCR CSR), pioneering advising businesses on child rights in their value chain. The Centre’s services and expertise help companies with sustainability strategies and projects that permanently improve the lives of children, young workers and working migrant parents.

In 2015, the centre expanded its activities to Myanmar, Malaysia and Bangladesh, and this experience and expertise serves as a model for Save the Children’s growing global structure of regional centres for Child Rights and Business.

CCR CSR is working with a range of international brands including Samsung Electronics, Disney, Starbucks and HP; but also with local Chinese companies and smaller brands from the Nordic region such as Clas Ohlson, ICA and TOP-TOY, which source many of their products from China. 

Companies mostly approach CCR CSR when they are looking for ways to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers; to protect and support juvenile workers; and to take a best practice approach to child labour. For all of these issues CCR CSR uses its expertise to show companies how to tackle these challenges in a sustainable and context-aware manner, seeing the bigger picture while always having the best interests of children in mind. 

“The Child Rights and Business Principles help us move the discussion away from something threatening to companies to actually presenting them with an opportunity where there was a problem. We can help companies to profile themselves both in producer and consumer countries as a company that cares for children,” says Ines Kaempfer, the Hong Kong-based director of CCR CSR. 

Migration – impact on children and companies

The situation in China, where over 61 million children are left behind by parents who migrate for work in other parts of the country, has a well documented negative impact on both children and parents. But the full implications of are still not understood by many companies. 

Many of the challenges companies face in their supply chains can be linked back to migration and children. For example, the distracted line worker who rarely sees his or her child; the unmotivated juvenile worker who’s treated as a disposable source of labour; the restless young factory worker who grew up without parental guidance and lacks the skills to face every day challenges; and the line manager whose out-dated management and communication style leads to conflict and misunderstandings with young workers. All these scenarios lead to high staff turnover, recruitment difficulties, low retention rates, frequent errors on the production line, low worker morale, and ultimately poorer product quality. 

More and more companies realise the connection and recognise that they can be part of the solution to these problems and at the same time increase their profit, product quality and staff retention. 

CCR CSR plays an important role in helping companies to better understand the impact of their operations on child rights, and to seize the opportunity of starting to work with child rights issues through trainings, workshops and organisational support.

Working inside ‘the race to the cheapest’ 

It can sometimes be frustrating to work with child rights issues. Ines Kaempfer has seen how factories that have made a lot of progress on worker conditions and rights issues find themselves priced out, simply because they were not the cheapest anymore. Brands stopped working with them. 

“The sense among most Western or international companies is that they still can get it all, meaning to get the low price but also to get conditions in their  supply chain that are acceptable,” she says. 

The race to the cheapest has not ended as far as CCR CSR can see. 

“That logic has not changed, so what we are trying to do is to work within that logic, trying to make a business case and find ways to create good conditions while not destroying the business relationship between the company and the brand.”

Changing labour market

There is a clear labour shortage in China today, something that helps CCR CSR in their work. Many factories struggle to get the workers that they need and this has changed the attitudes of many managers. 

“They realise that their work force is not something that is easily replaceable. This is positive since it helps us make the point that it is a sound investment to better look after your employees and their children,” says Ines Kaempfer. 

In China, most of the sustainability work so far has been done with companies that manufacture products for export outside China. But with the Chinese consumer market becoming more mature, critical and informed, Ines Kaempfer believes that in the next 5-10 years more pressure will be applied on domestic production and child rights will become an issue for the Chinese consumer as well. 

“We do see more and more that consumers play an important role, there are more values out there than just the lowest price, there are more reasons why people buy things. Consumers also value quality, sustainability and responsibility" 

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