Looking back at the year 2023

Looking back at the year 2023

Published on Feb 05, 2024

The year 2023 has been rich in events and developments in relation to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7 to eradicate child labour and forced labour. In this retrospective, we looked back at the key landmarks of the year.

Legislation at the European level: a significant advancement

After months of negotiations, debates, and exchanges within the various bodies of the European Union, the European Council and the Parliament finally reached an agreement following a trilogue on the European Union Corporate Sustainability Directive on December 14, 2023.

In February 2024, the Council of Europe and the JURI Commission will need to approve the text resulting from the trilogue. In April, the Parliament, for its part, will proceed with the final approval of the text. If all bodies give their consent, the text will then need to be transposed by the Member States into their national legislation.

One of the main points of contention was whether to include the financial sector within the scope of the law. It was decided that financial services will be temporarily excluded from the directive’s scope. However, a review clause will be integrated to consider a possible inclusion of the financial sector later on.

The legislation will apply to EU companies and their parent companies with more than 500 employees, as well as a global turnover exceeding 150 million euros, and non-EU companies and their parent companies with a turnover of 150 million euros in the EU market.

The obligations will also apply to companies with more than 250 employees and a turnover of more than 40 million euros, provided that at least 20 million is generated in one of the following sectors considered at risk: manufacturing and wholesale trade of textiles, clothing, and footwear; agriculture, including forestry and fishing; food manufacturing and trade in agricultural raw materials; extraction and wholesale trade of mineral resources or manufacture of related products; and construction.

Companies will be required to identify, assess, prevent, mitigate, end, and remedy their negative impact and that of their partners on people and the planet upstream and downstream, including production, supply, transport, and storage, design, and distribution.

Authorities in each country will have the power to launch inspections and investigations, as well as impose sanctions on non-compliant companies, including “naming and shaming” measures and fines of up to 5% of their net global turnover. Victims will have the right to be compensated for damages suffered. Finally, compliance with due diligence obligations could be taken into account in public procurement criteria.

Child labour in the United States

The latest global estimates have shown an increase in child labour. All regions of the world are affected, with the United States being no exception.

The year 2023 saw a surge in violations of child labour laws in the United States. During the fiscal year 2022/2023 (from October 1, 2022, to September 30, 2023), the number of violations reached a peak of 5,792, representing a significant increase compared to the 3,876 from the previous year and the 2,819 recorded just a year prior. For instance, one of the largest agribusiness companies in the country was fined $1.5 million. The US Department of Labour condemned this company for employing at least 102 children aged 13 to 17 in hazardous tasks, working them overnight across 13 meat processing facilities spread across eight states*.

The resurgence of child labour violations also coincides with increased efforts by the Biden administration to crack down on employers violating child labour laws. Federal law prohibits children under 14 from working and prohibits all minors from working in industries deemed hazardous. It also prevents minors under 16 from working after 7 p.m. on school nights and after 9 p.m. during the summer.

Experts attribute the increase in child labour cases in the United States to various factors. The historically tight labour market following pandemic-related closures fuelled labour shortages in various sectors, particularly in lower-paying service jobs, prompting employers to recruit more minors. Persistent inflation has also weighed heavily on households, prompting more young people to seek employment. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors have arrived in the United States, often seeking work.

The agricultural sector is particularly affected and additionally benefits from a legislative exception. Federal law allows children as young as 12 to work as paid farmworkers on commercial farms for unlimited hours with a parent’s permission. At age 16, children working on farms can perform tasks deemed particularly hazardous. Bills are being considered in the US Congress to align age and working hour standards for children in the agricultural sector with those applicable to children working in all other industries*. Another bill aims to increase sanctions for violations of child labour laws.

At the state level, several bills have also been introduced, including proposals to increase penalties for child labour violations, prevent repeat offenders from receiving federal contracts, and raise the minimum age for working on farms, among other proposals*.

However, some local governments have enacted legislation allowing children to work at younger ages, with extended hours and in sectors that were previously prohibited. For example, Iowa now allows the hiring of 14- and 15-year-olds to work in hazardous sectors that were previously prohibited, such as industrial laundry services and meat refrigeration and cold storage rooms. Additionally, some hazardous activities prohibited for children under 18 are now allowed with local government approval for those aged 16 and above.

By late December 2023, an article in The New York Times revealed the shortcomings of audit firms in detecting child migrant workers in the United States. The article highlights several challenges faced by private auditors in conducting social compliance audits. Audit constraints include tight schedules, limiting observation of nighttime activities where child labour violations are more frequent. Auditors face pressures from audit firms, client companies demanding inspections, and suppliers often funding audits, sometimes compromising the objectivity of results. Financial conflicts of interest emerge as auditors are paid by audit firms and audited factories often fund audits. The scarcity of government inspections increases reliance on private audits, adding pressure on auditors to effectively identify issues. Linguistic and cultural difficulties hinder interactions with migrant workers, complicating problem detection, particularly in the frequent absence of interpreters during interviews.

Migrant workers

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of migrants worldwide stands at 281 million, with approximately 169 million involved in labour-related migration.

In sectors such as agriculture or construction, some low-skilled and underpaid jobs have lost their appeal for local workers. This has prompted some countries to enter into migration agreements to recruit workers from abroad. For example, Taiwan has entered agreements with the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. There are reportedly over 700,000 migrant workers in various sectors: fishing, agriculture, caregiving, and manufacturing.

In October 2023, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Felipe González Morales, presented his report. It highlights the issues faced by migrant workers in terms of human rights, explaining how labour migration increases their vulnerability and precariousness to human rights violations.

The report underscores various concerns:

  • Multiple discriminations and unequal access to decent jobs compared to local workers,
  • Deception and high recruitment fees during the recruitment phase,
  • Restrictions on freedom of movement, especially under temporary migration programmes,
  • Hazardous and poorly paid jobs,
  • Lack of freedom of association,
  • Unsanitary living conditions,
  • Limited access to social protection and healthcare services, as well as the inability to access justice.

These situations are often exacerbated when individuals are in irregular situations and unprotected due to their dependence on smugglers. Moreover, they rarely have access to protection mechanisms and safety nets along migration routes and in destination countries.

Gender norms and roles, as well as systemic inequalities, further expose women, LGBT+ individuals, and gender diverse people to labour rights violations. These situations are also exacerbated by factors such as sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics.

Migrant children, especially when unaccompanied, are at greater risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation or labour exploitation. The temporary and often unregulated nature of their work further exacerbates their vulnerability. Migrant children are often employed at lower wages and experience higher rates of work-related mortality.

Faced with the growing demand for foreign labour in all sectors to address labour shortages, Felipe González Morales calls on states to design new mechanisms and pathways to protect migrant workers in employment countries, regardless of their status. Migrant workers must have access to decent jobs in a safe environment, free from discrimination or exploitation, while enjoying the protection of their labour rights and human rights, wherever they live and work. 

The future of Asian labour migration

According to the report published in early June by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) “Labour Migration in Asia: What Does the Future Hold?” migration is expected to continue to increase in Asia. Understanding the future of labour migration is crucial to promoting change and working towards the goal of ensuring safe, orderly, and regular migration. The report has identified 5 key factors:

  1. Demographic changes focused on population ageing

The phenomenon of population ageing in countries such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, or Taiwan will create employment opportunities in the caregiving sector, which are generally filled by migrant workers. In other sectors, the labour shortage will continue to be partially offset by migration.

  1. Climate change

Climate change will increase migration pressures. For example, failing to limit global warming to 1.5-2.2°C above pre-industrial levels would result in the displacement of 37.4 million people by 2030 in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These displacements would mainly be due to the effects of climate change, leading to a loss of agricultural yields and fisheries. The most vulnerable populations are primarily engaged in primary activities and tend to have average or low incomes. Migration will initially be internal before expanding to international migration.

  1. Technological developments and workplace automation

Increasing automation may change the nature of demand for particular skills. Initially, it is expected to reduce migration of low-skilled workers in routine manual jobs. These workers are at risk of losing their jobs unless they are provided with training opportunities. Additionally, the availability of low-wage migrant workers leads to a decrease in average wages in the country and inertia within companies to adopt automation and other technologies involving higher costs.

  1. Income disparities between countries

Migration is a strategy to alleviate poverty, support livelihood development by finding productive employment abroad. Higher incomes are not necessarily perceived as an end in themselves by migrant workers, but rather to improve the quality of life, including better healthcare, higher education, and developed infrastructure. Income disparities between countries are expected to continue to drive migration as long as there is persistent disparity among countries in Asia. Income disparities are a more pronounced incentive for migrant women, who also face gender gaps. This trend is expected to continue over the next decade, especially as they are concentrated in jobs at risk of disappearance due to automation. However, they can also find opportunities in the expanding care sector in ageing countries.

  1. Economic transformation and development of countries’ infrastructures

Economic transformation involves reducing growth dependence on primary activities in favour of manufacturing and service industries, which require labour. These transitions are accompanied by an expansion of public and private infrastructures, such as power grids, ports, roads, and telecommunications, etc. Migrant workers are expected to continue to play a crucial role in the transformation of these countries as they constitute the bulk of the labour force in the construction sector, as in Malaysia or Thailand.

Climate change and child labour

Climate change is at the heart of debates, especially as COP28 concludes in Dubai. For several years, the ILO has advocated for a just transition. This means making the economy greener in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible for all involved, creating opportunities for decent work and leaving no one behind.

In December, the ILO published a report proving the link between climate change and child labour. While the link seemed evident and supported by a solid hypothesis, this research document further strengthens this connection. Children have been identified as one of the most threatened population groups by systemic shocks caused by climate change. The document identifies some of the key channels through which climate change and responses are linked to child labour.

By 2030, according to climate warming trajectories, climate change is expected to push 32 to 132 million people into extreme poverty (extreme poverty = less than $1.25 per day per person). Poverty is one of the key elements in understanding vulnerability to child labour. Studies in Cambodia and Tanzania have shown that child labour prevalence is higher in villages facing climate change effects such as floods or droughts. Declining productivity in agriculture can push children who were already working there into other sectors.

Additionally, climate change can cause positive disruptions by increasing productivity and raw material costs, leading to increased incomes for some producers. Some regions may benefit from better climate conditions with more rainfall, for example, and therefore, have better yields. The study shows that increased productivity and income for families do not have an effect on reducing child labour. On the contrary, it also leads to increased demand for labour and thus an increase in child labour to cope with labour shortages. This is sometimes mitigated if producers have access to workers in the region.

The various consequences of climate change will also cause migrations. According to UNICEF, over 500 million children are at risk of displacement. In India, for example, it has been observed that migrant children fleeing environmental stress in the state of Odhisa are increasingly engaged in hazardous forms of child labour. Increasing heat also affects the working conditions of children already engaged in economic activities, whether in agriculture or other sectors such as brick kilns. Additionally, where yields are affected, piece-rate payment systems demand increased harvesting speeds and work intensity, leading to risks of heat stress and fatigue.

Policies to combat climate change can also impact child labour. For example, the closure of coal mines where child labour is common will lead to its decline in this sector, but also difficulties for families in the region. Without just transition measures and alternatives, the fate of children will not improve, and they may end up working in other sectors. Another example is the transition to all-electric, which has consequences for child labour. This requires the extraction of materials, often using child labour, such as cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The same goes for e-waste disposal, where children are already present.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still far from being achieved

Adopted by the United Nations in September 2015 as part of the Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a global commitment to eradicate, among other things, poverty, hunger, and address environmental challenges by 2030.

These goals were developed through cooperation between member states, in collaboration with various stakeholders such as businesses and civil society. At the halfway point towards their achievement, it is crucial to note that we still face a long road to reach these ambitious targets.

Among the various targets of SDG 8, which aims to promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all, target 8.7 is particularly essential. This target calls on all stakeholders to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, to end modern slavery and human trafficking, and to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and to end child labour in all its forms by 2025.

However, with two years left until the deadline to eradicate child labour and seven years until that to eliminate forced labour, it is alarming to note that we are still far from our goals. Indeed, a recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicates that “the world is far from achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8”.

Regarding target 8.7, the indicators are concerning. The number of children in employment has increased, rising from 151.8 million in 2016 to 160 million in 2020. This figure could be even higher by 2023, due to the acceleration of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, economic, security, and climate crises. Forced labour has also increased, rising from 24.9 million in 2016 to 27.6 million in 2021.

Although some countries have made encouraging progress, the current pace will not allow us to achieve SDG 8 goals, let alone eradicate child labour by 2025 and forced labour by 2030. The global pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in some countries, particularly regarding social protection. This report, evaluating our progress towards these goals halfway, urgently calls on states to redouble their efforts. This includes the need to address the burden of debt and improve the fiscal space of developing countries. These measures will enable countries to allocate resources to policies, systems, and institutions aimed at supporting the achievement of SDGs, particularly regarding social protection, labour protection, decent employment, informal sector reduction, youth employment, and gender equality promotion.