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Despite global efforts and petitions from humanitarian groups, there are still many major companies around the world that employ child labour – knowingly or otherwise – in order to make a profit. As business rely on increasingly globalised supply chains, the ethical and legal practices of the contractors and subcontractors that they use can become murky, and while many of the organisations on this list make the right noises about ending such practices, the reality is that they need to take a lot more responsibility for how their products are sourced and manufactured.
We, as consumers, also have a responsibility, too. Although it might be easy to turn a blind eye to the world of child labour, it is something that continues to deserve our scrutiny and concern. These companies might be doing great things in their field, but by using work crews that include children, they are enabling the growth of an illicit and miserable industry. Drawing public attention to their activity – or lack of, in many cases – might be our best hope of making a real and lasting change.
With this in mind, here are 10 companies that use child labour.
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Despite signing an industry agreement in 2001 to eradicate child labour from their Ghana and Ivory Coast-based cocoa farms, Nestlé – one of the largest and most recognisable consumer brands in the world – continues to receive criticism for the ongoing employment abuses in their supply chain. In 2005, a lawsuit bought against the company by former child workers lead to a damning investigation by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and although the confectionary giant subsequently introduced new measures to tackle the problem, clearly they have not worked.
Terry Collingsworth, the human rights lawyer who filed the original lawsuit, alleged in October 2018 that Nestlé has since failed to meet its own eradication targets, with the US appeals court allowing his longstanding legal challenge to proceed; the Swiss-based food producer are now also facing a separate class-action lawsuit from US human rights activist Dannell Tomasella, who claims that the company are lying to consumers by failing to disclose their ongoing involvement in child labour. For their part, Nestlé acknowledges that the ‘risk of child labour’ in its supply chain cannot be ‘fully removed’ but that they are ‘determined to tackle the problem’.
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Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz – better known as H&M – are no strangers to human rights controversies; it has faced allegations of neglect in regards to workers’ rights across its various production factories, while its sustainability practices have also drawn criticism in recent years. Perhaps the most alarming charges levelled at the fast fashion giants, though, concern the reports that they have been using child labour in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Cambodia – and paying as little as 13 pence an hour for the privilege.
An alarming drop in their 2018 profits suggests that customer patience may be growing thin, but H&M seems undeterred about their ethical and moral role in this process; in a public statement, the company was quick to point out that the legal working age in Myanmar is 14. Unfortunately, despite the issuing of a token condemnation of general child labour practices, this blaise attitude suggests that H&M are unlikely to change their ways anytime soon.
3. Philip Morris
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The tobacco industry has long been comfortable in its role as public enemy number one, and it’s therefore unsurprising to find no less than three of its biggest players on this list; one of them, the US cigarette giant Philip Morris – which owns Marlboro – has a long history of exploiting children.
In 2010, the company admitted that children as young as 10 had been forced into labour on its contracted tobacco farms in Kazakhstan, with allegations by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggesting that passports had been confiscated in order to prevent them escaping; the HRW also claims that Philip Morris was then ‘slow’ to implement their suggestions for tackling the issue. Clearly, there are still ongoing issues with their providers elsewhere in the globe, too, with a Guardian investigation published in June 2018 alleging that child labour on the company’s contracted farms – particularly in Malawi – is ‘rampant’.
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Despite Microsoft’s global reputation as both a top employer and a philanthropic pioneer, allegations surfaced in October 2018 that child labour was being used to extract cobalt for the company in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); investigators for Amnesty International claim that children as young as 7 are mining the product in toxic and hostile conditions for 12 hours a day.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft has moved quickly to address the allegations, producing a report in late 2018 that details the actions they have taken to eradicate this practice; Amnesty remains sceptical, though, stating that while there is ‘real evidence of change’ on the ground in the DRC, there is still a ‘long way to go’ to meet both their own concerns and international standards in general.
5. Sports Direct
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Another global company that has struggled with its public image and perception, Sports Direct – and, in particular, its controversial owner, Mike Ashley – have repeatedly come under fire for dubious employment practices; the UK-based clothing and sports equipment giant can now add child labour to its charge sheet.
The company’s Lonsdale clothing line – a key part of Sports Direct’s public brand – is produced in factories in Myanmar, with testimonies from workers detailing how the practice is rife. The company doesn’t seem too bothered, though, describing the workers’ statements as ‘anecdotal and uncorroborated’, before later claiming to condemn child labour practices.
6. British American Tobacco (BAT)
Despite being the biggest listed tobacco company in the world (Lucky Strike, Pall Mall and Rothmans are among its brands), BAT has faced numerous accusations of enabling child labour practices; in 2016, reports surfaced of children working in hostile conditions on BAT tobacco farms in Bangladesh, something that the company stringently refutes.
In spite of their protestations, concern is still present over the welfare of children and their labour use on BAT’s tobacco farms all over the world; Marty Otanez, an academic at the University of Colorado, claims that child labour is present ‘in every segment [of] the tobacco production process’, and that BAT see any proposed changes as a threat to their annual profit sheets. The company itself, meanwhile, is happy to continue turning a blind eye, despite the accusations put to them; speaking at its AGM in April 2018, chairman Richard Burrows claimed that BAT has ‘not got any questions to answer in respect of these issues’.
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Apple has cultivated a reputation as an innovative brand, always at the forefront of technology and a dream job for many graduates and interns. But, perhaps unsurprisingly for a company that produces so many units, questions have been raised about what exactly goes on in its supply chain; following the discovery that a Chinese contractor was employing 74 minors in 2013, the company also admitted that its bestselling iPhone X product was being made by schoolchildren.
There were fresh claims in October 2018, too, of school students under the age of 18 being made to manufacture Apple Watches under the guise of a company ‘internship’. The contractor in question, based in southwest China, also manufactures products for other tech giants such as Dell, Amazon and Siemens. The company says that it wants to end all child labour practices, although its contractors are still permitted to hire ‘interns’ to work in such a way.
8. New Look
The UK-based fashion retailer is also involved in the Myanmar factory scandals that have bought H&M and Sports Direct into disrepute; unlike its competitors, though, New Look is at least willing to accept that there is an issue and have pledged to ‘work with suppliers and partners in Myanmar to address the findings’. This includes a remediation programme in which underage workers are removed from factories, returned to school and reimbursed with a similar wage.
The company also claims to have let their suppliers know that they are ‘against’ the use of Uzbek raw cotton due to child labour exploitation there, although by their own admission, they still place responsibility for the investigation of cotton sourcing in the hands of their contractors – not themselves.
Japan Tobacco International (JTI) are also involved in the child labour cases involving tobacco farmers in Malawi; unlike their competitors, though, JTI buys the tobacco leaf directly, meaning it has a key say in the prices that are set and the conditions that workers operate in. In the Guardian’s June 2018 report, researchers found that children work at their family’s behest on the tobacco farms, a practice that is condoned by JTI (and other leaf buyers) with the justification that ‘handling dried tobacco is not considered as hazardous [as working with wet leaves]’.
Indeed, according to the report, JTI (and BAT) consider it not just acceptable, but even beneficial, for children between 13 and 15 to work on the farms, provided it is ‘light work, permitted by local law’. It also points out that its internal ARISE scheme has removed more than 39,000 children from labour exploitation across the world.
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Like Nestlé, the US-based confectionary giant, Hershey’s, has run into serious labour explotation problems on their west African cocoa farms; like Nestlé, they are also now facing legal action for their practices from Dannell Tomasella, who has also targeted Mars. Tomasella’s lawsuit – filed, as with the Nestlé case, by law firm Hagens Berman – claims that Hershey’s have repeatedly abandoned any serious attempt to implement the Harkin-Engel Protocol of which they are signatories, resulting in widespread child labour practices on their supply farms.
The company, which sells popular confectionary including Kit Kats, Peppermint Patties and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, argues that it ‘does not tolerate, and is committed to preventing, child labour across the entire supply chain’, but according to Tomasella and his legal advisors, Hershey’s is simply not doing enough.
Child labour remains one of the biggest issues of our time and while international humanitarian companies might be doing their best to turn things around, many companies continue to fund cheap labour and sweatshops in the production of their goods. While amnesty groups draw attention to the very worst cases, there is still an alarming rate going on and if we really want to make a change, we should pay attention to the products we buy, and the factories we fund as a result.
Join the conversation! Are there any companies that you think should be added to the list? Let us know in the comments section below.
Any views or opinions expressed within this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of CareerAddict and/or DeltaQuest Media Ltd. This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 10 October 2016.