Audits are Not the Answer: Four Labor Approaches to Eliminating Child Labor on U.S. and Global Supply Chains

The New York Times series on child labor exposes the failure of the self-regulatory, private audit system to root out child labor, even when it is right under their noses. Hannah Dreier’s reporting digs deeps into this broken system that increasingly leaves children seriously injured, or worse, while corporations feign ignorance or act with impunity.

While it is important to expose the damage done when corporations regulate themselves, we must also be clear-eyed about the role that audits can play in stopping child labor and other worker abuses in global supply chains. The focus on audits–from the time of day they are performed to the auditor's ethics–will not get to the heart of the problem. Audits ultimately fail to root out migrant child labor in the U.S., just as audits have not been effective at rooting out wage theft, gender-based violence, and many other labor abuses in the global supply chain.

Audits are largely voluntary in nature and the sole regulatory mechanism of many industries. Audits often exist as part of corporations’ attempts to self-regulate their supply chains and evade collaboration or accountability towards other actors in the supply chains, including workers and trade Unions. Audits provide CSR talking points for shareholders but do little to give workers the power to improve their jobs and hold their employers accountable. The global supply chain has long demonstrated the limits of auditing to get at gender-based violence and harassment, wage theft, child labor, and other labor abuses. While the recent resurgence of child labor in the U.S. is alarming, it is the tip of the iceberg for child labor and other forced labor abuses in global supply chains. Unions and other labor rights organizations around the world have plenty of experience fighting against these abuses, and the real solution is clear: global brands must be accountable to the workers (and their unions) in their supply chains.

We know what works to root out child labor and other labor abuses–we just need more of it. Here are four ways to create real solutions:

  1. Employ workers directly and avoid staffing agencies. Research shows that workers at staffing agencies face more discrimination, wage theft, and health and safety problems.  Temporary staffing agency workers also reported greater fear of retaliation and union busting.  This works because remedies against staffing agencies are weak, and staffing agencies are often constructed to distance the actual employer with the power to set and maintain workplace conditions from the staffing agency, which stands in repressing workers’ efforts to improve conditions.

  2. Pay workers living wages and provide decent working conditions. All workers should have living wages and decent working conditions. We must stop the race to the bottom. It is no accident that the growing number of children migrating across the border on their own have ended up in dangerous, illegal jobs in every state.

  3. Enact policies that provide decent work in Central America as well as the right to migrate with full labor citizenship. Central American migration to the United States today is sometimes framed as a humanitarian tragedy, sometimes a national security threat. Rarely, however, do we discuss the lack of decent work as a central reason for migration. Yet jobs that pay a living wage, offer fair conditions and benefits, respect fundamental rights, and give workers stability so that they can plan for their families’ future are fundamental to allow people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to choose not to migrate. Decent work is also a fundamental feature of fair migration. It is the missing pillar of US policy in the region. Meanwhile, for migrants, decent work is embodied in the idea of labor citizenship. All human beings, wherever they are from and whatever their immigration status, should have the right to be treated with dignity on the job and paid fairly for their labor. Labor citizenship is fundamental to ensuring that migration is compatible with decent work for migrants themselves and for local workers in the same labor market.

  4. Global supply chain investors and buyers should make sourcing decisions that prioritize workplaces with unions and collective bargaining agreements and assign risk where the right to organize is violated and union busting occurs. Unions and collective bargaining agreements for everyone with their employers and multi-stakeholder agreements that brands sign to take responsibility for all workers in their supply chains, whether they employ them directly or not. When workers have a voice on the job, mediation, and enforcement mechanisms, they hold employers accountable in a way that voluntary audits never can.