Looking back on the year 2021

Looking back on the year 2021

Published on Jan 11, 2022

The year 2021 has been rich in events and developments towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7 to eradicate forced labour and child labour.

In this retrospective of events and news, we look back at the key points of the year.

2021: a milestone year for the fight against child labour

In June 2019, the United Nations declared 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. As such, the UN has called on all stakeholders to step up their actions to achieve SDG target 8.7, to eliminate child labour in all its forms by 2025*.

Many events and discussions      marked this International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. RHSF has been an active participant. Here you will find our pledges for action against child labour.

In June 2021, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF released new estimates on child labour worldwide. In 2020, there would have been 160 million children working, an increase of almost 8 million compared to the last estimate in 2017*.

These figures were estimated before the Covid-19 health crisis, and it is likely that the crisis has further exacerbated this phenomenon, bringing efforts to reduce child labour to a halt worldwide. School closures, increased poverty and insecurity, and reduced resources for organisations and authorities to take action are all factors that are driving the increase in child labour.

The report shows that the vast majority of children (~70%) work in the agricultural sector. The remainder work in the industrial sector (~10%) and in services (~20%).

Although the prevalence is higher in low-income countries, 58.4 per cent of the world’s working children are in middle- and high-income countries. Poverty reduction is not always accompanied by a massive reduction in child labour.

Furthermore, school is not always a barrier to child labour. According to the report, 65% of working children attend school.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected region in the world with 86.6 million children working, representing more than half of the world’s child labour.

In sub-Saharan Africa, GDP per capita is falling as economic growth cannot keep pace with population growth and more and more children are being born into poor families, all while there is a lack of investment in education.

There is also a high rate of informal employment (~86% in Africa). The informal sector is linked to poverty, lack of social protection and income instability.

Finally, health crises (AIDS, Ebola) and armed conflicts in the region are also a vector for child labour, especially for refugees and displaced persons.

The problem concerns all actors, and particularly those in the subcontracting chain. An ILO study shows that between 28 and 43% of children in abusive labour situations contribute to exports, and do so indirectly, through the previous levels of the supply chain (such as raw material extraction or agriculture)*.

Strengthening legislative framework

The year 2021 has been an important one for Duty of Vigilance legislation. At the EU level, on 10 March 2021, the Parliament adopted by a large majority a resolution containing recommendations to the European Commission on duty of care and corporate responsibility*.

MEPs are calling for the urgent adoption of binding EU legislation, as promised by the Justice Commissioner in 2020. This legislation must ensure that companies do not cause or contribute to potential or actual negative impacts on human rights, including forced labour and child labour, the environment and good governance.

The publication of the draft legislation, initially announced for June 2021 by the European Commission, has been postponed several times. Some organisations have denounced lobbying at the European level to obstruct the project*.

When it comes to France, the law on duty of care, voted in 2017, has seen significant progress. Indeed, on 21 October, parliamentarians finally attributed to the judicial court the competence to deal with duty of care disputes. There was an intense battle in the National Assembly and the Senate for the attribution of this competence between the judicial court and the commercial court*. For NGOs, this decision will allow for more impartial judgements, as the commercial court is partly made up of traders.

On 15 December 2021, the Court of Cassation (highest court in France) also recognised the competence of the judicial court to judge a complaint on the grounds of non-compliance with the law on due diligence. The Court of Cassation recalled that a company’s duty of care plan does not constitute a commercial act and that claimants could choose before which court they wished to bring such cases*.

Also in France, the law known as the “Climate and Resilience” law, integrated the notion of a “vigilance plan” into the Public Procurement Code as of 22 August 2021. Indeed, the new Article L. 2147-7-1 of the Public Procurement Code allows a local authority purchaser to exclude from consideration for a contract, companies subject to the law on duty of vigilance that fail to meet their legal obligations. However, in practice such application is difficult, particularly becaus there is no official list of companies subject to the Duty of Vigilance law. This provision will come into force by 2026 at the latest*.

Two French MPs, Coralie Dubost and Dominique Potier, are currently working on a mission to evaluate the law on the duty of vigilance, which will focus on child labour. As MP Potier points out, “this report will serve both to feed the European debate and to prepare the implementation of the European directive*“.

The law of 4 August 2021 on the programming of solidarity development and the fight against global inequalities has made it possible to include “the eradication of forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour” as a transversal priority for France*. This provision is the result of the work of Dominique Potier, MP, in collaboration with RHSF. The MP recognised our organisation during the debates in the Chamber: “I simply wanted to propose a wording that was more in line with the UN texts and that paid tribute to Human Resources Without Borders, an NGO that is actively working on France’s participation in Alliance 8.7, a global partnership that fights against human trafficking, modern slavery and child labour, in line with point 7 of SDG 8*“.

Norway and Germany also have a Duty of Vigilance law

In Germany, this legislation will come into force on 1 January 2023. Among other things, it obliges the companies subject to this law to analyse risks and establish corrective measures to prevent them. In addition, companies will have to publish a report and make it accessible to everyone. In case of non-compliance, companies may be fined on the basis of their turnover and excluded from public procurement for a period of 3 years*.

Norway has adopted the Transparency Act, which will require companies to identify and remedy risks to human rights and working conditions in their subcontracting chain. The act requires companies to conduct due diligence assessments and document how they act to prevent or mitigate these risks. In addition, the law requires companies to provide redress when it is due. Companies must also report on all of the above, including cases of serious risks or damaging incidents that they discover in the course of their due diligence assessments*.

Ban on products of forced labour

During 2021, the United States and Canada increased their efforts to ban the import of forced labour products into their territory.

Canada adopted this legislation in 2020 as part of the implementation of the Canada-US-Mexico agreement. The United States has had this regulation since 1930. At the time, the aim was to combat the competitive and economic advantage provided by forced labour. Action on this has  up since 2016, especially due to the Obama administration’s amendment removing the exception for goods produced in insufficient quantities domestically to meet domestic demand.

In 2020 and 2021, two countries have been at the centre of these bans by the US and Canada. They are China, particularly products from the Xinjiang region, and Malaysia, where several sectors are targeted: palm oil, latex gloves and electronics*.

On 23 December 2021, the United States decided to go further for products from the Xinjiang region. President Joe Biden signed a law that allows products made in whole or in part in the region to be banned unless companies can prove to customs officials that the products were not made using forced labour*. The aim of the law is to combat forced labour and other human rights violations against the Uyghur minority.

In Malaysia, in response to the forced labour cases that preceded the ban on importing certain products on North American soil, the government announced a national action plan against forced labour. The plan will train employers on the issue, better protect migrant workers and improve access to justice for victims and their protection*.

In September 2021, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced that she wanted to introduce legislation to ban products that have been produced using forced labour from EU market*.  In February 2021, a first report, drafted by Green MEP Anna Cavazzini, called for such legislation and proposed ways to implement it*. Some MEPs have called on the European Commission to deliver on its commitments and start a process to establish legislation to ban the import of forced labour products*.

France commits itself and launches its national strategy

On 9 November 2021, Elisabeth Borne, Minister of Labour, Franck Riester, Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade, and Adrien Taquet, Secretary of State for Children and Families, presented the “national acceleration strategy to eliminate child labour, forced labour, human trafficking and contemporary slavery by 2030”*.

At the press conference, the ministers also announced that France would become a “pioneer country” of the  Alliance 8.7 in order to encourage legislative and practical measures to eradicate child labour worldwide. The Alliance 8.7 is a global partnership against child labour, forced labour, human trafficking and contemporary slavery.

RHSF participated in the elaboration of the strategy by exchanging, during several meetings, with stakeholders. The work of our NGO was welcomed by Franck Riester, who explained that “the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs is, for example, a partner in an action research programme, the “Lab 8.7″, created by the NGO Ressources Humaines Sans Frontières to design and disseminate models that reduce the vulnerability of populations to forced labour and child labour, alongside companies wishing to test solutions in the field in their subcontracting chain.

The strategy has three main components:

  • Axis 1: Increase prevention by strengthening the capacity of stakeholders to act, in particular by providing tools and information on the implementation of the duty of care, developing training for the various stakeholders and setting up information and awareness-raising campaigns for the general public, particularly young people and consumers.
  • Axis 2: Better protect victims by making progress in detection, care and reparation, as well as improving the identification of victims, their care and allowing them better access to justice.
  • Axis 3: Give the initiative an ambitious and demanding European and international boost. This means forming more partnerships at the global level and ensuring greater involvement of civil society, particularly in the framework of projects in the Sahel, promoting the adoption of a law on the duty of care at the European level, including demanding social clauses in European trade and investment policy.

Covid-19 reveals and exacerbates the vulnerability of some workers

The year 2021 was marked by the Covid-19 health crisis. This situation has caused a lot of upheaval for workers.

According to the International Labour Organisation, the equivalent of 125 million full-time jobs will be lost by 2021. The regions most affected are Africa, the Americas and the Arab States*.

These workers have either lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.

The long-term impact will be most significant for vulnerable people in low-skilled and low-paid jobs, including young people, women and migrant workers. The ILO warns of a risk of detachment from the world of work in the long term and an increase in poverty for these people. This could increase their vulnerability to situations of forced labour and child labour.

Migrant workers are particularly at risk. According to the ILO, the closure of borders, various curfew or confinement measures have led to the temporary or permanent closure of many businesses*.

This has increased the vulnerability of thousands of migrant workers who have been left without jobs and without a source of income. Some were able to keep their jobs, but with a limited number of hours and therefore reduced remuneration.

Some have found themselves stranded in the country of destination, with no possibility of returning home and no access to protection systems. These systems are often reserved for nationals, or they are difficult to access for migrants because of the cost, lack of information or the lengthy procedures involved.

Border closures have led to workers using irregular routes to their destination country. This is particularly the case in Thailand, where over 300,000 irregular workers returned to the country by the end of 2020. Despite the restrictions, workers are crossing porous borders with the help of smugglers, increasing their vulnerability, especially as the costs are higher.

The negative consequences for those with income loss includes having to take out loans to pay for recruitment costs or to send remittance home to their families. In Malaysia, for example, some stranded workers have had to borrow again from loan sharks to meet living expenses and those of families back home, until they can resume their economic activity.

Migrant workers have been discriminated against, often being the first to be dismissed, and have suffered stigmatisation in the destination country and in the country of origin.

In Singapore, despite the relaxation measures in the country, migrant workers are still confined and have been since the beginning of the pandemic. Many clusters have broken out in the overcrowded dormitories where thousands of migrant workers live. Migrant workers are still restricted in their freedom of movement and have to stay in a small area with few distractions. This may have an impact on the mental and physical health of these workers*.

Climate change and modern slavery are interconnected

In 2021, COP26 made some progress in the fight against climate change. At this annual event, a Just Transition Declaration was adopted by a number of countries including members of the European Union. This declaration recognises the need to ensure that no one is left behind in the transition to green economies, especially those working in sectors, cities and regions dependent on carbon-intensive industries and production*.

At COP26, an agreement was signed with the aim of phasing out coal-fired power generation by the 2030s for the richest countries, and by the 2040s for the poorest countries. This target will have to take into account the many low-wage, low-skilled and generally informal workers who depend on coal mining for their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families*.

The link between climate change and modern slavery was exposed in a report by Anti-Slavery International through their research in two countries: Peru and Bolivia*.

In both countries, the destruction of the environment and in particular the scarcity of water from the glaciers is leading to very large migrations. Farmers are forced to abandon their land to seek work in other sectors. These migrants can be discriminated against and are often forced into debt and dangerous work.

Climate change has negative consequences, especially for already vulnerable populations. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s poor depend on natural resources for their livelihood.

According to UNICEF, nearly 1 billion children are living in a region at high risk of losing their livelihoods due to climate change*. One of the survival strategies for these children is to go to work to help their families. Some are forced to migrate, sometimes without their families, to find work elsewhere.

Climate change solutions must not overshadow human rights at work. A recent Guardian study revealed that China is one of the main producers of polysilicon, a key component for the manufacture of solar panels. This material, as well as solar panels, are linked to forced labour, particularly in the Xinjiang region where the Uyghur minority is exploited*. In June 2021, the United States banned the import of solar panels that use polysilicon from Xinjiang on suspicion of forced labour*.

Renewable energy technologies increase the demand for many products such as lithium, palm oil or cobalt. The latter mineral is mainly extracted in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is still a common phenomenon*.

Conclusion: what can we expect in 2022?

Now in 2022the deadline for achieving target 8.7 of the SDGs is fast approaching. Indeed, the original target set by UN member states in 2015 was to eradicate child labour by 2025 and forced labour by 2030.

In this context, we can expect three advances by 2022!

A strong commitment at the European level

The European Commission will have to answer for two legislative promises: a Europe-wide duty of care law and a law banning the import of forced labour products. France will play an active role in these issues by taking over the EU Presidency in January 2022 and launching the first actions of its national strategy to accelerate the elimination of child labour, forced labour, human trafficking and contemporary slavery.

On 20 January 2022, a motion for a resolution will be debated in the French National Assembly. It will make it possible to include among the priorities of the French Presidency of the EU the adoption of ambitious legislation on the duty of vigilance of multinationals*.

All these advances should make it possible to harmonise actions around a clear reference framework, of which RHSF is a stakeholder, and to better take into account the risks for all workers in the supply chains.

Acceleration of actions and commitments against child labour

In May, all eyes will turn to South Africa where the fifth Global Conference on Child Labour will take place. This will be an opportunity for all stakeholders to take stock of actions already taken and to make concrete commitments to end child labour in all its forms. There will be 3 years left to reach target 8.7 as the latest estimates show an increase in child labour, exacerbated by the current global crisis.

A human-centred recovery!

The health situation has created major disruptions around the world, particularly in subcontracting chains. It has highlighted the severe inequalities and vulnerabilities faced by some workers.

As economic recovery plans are put in place by many countries, governments will need to review their social model to better protect workers, including the  improvement of social protection systems. More than 4 billion people are not covered by any form of social protection.

At the 109th International Labour Conference, the ILO called on all member states to take action for a people-centred, resilient and sustainable economic and social recovery*.