On a recent trip to India, I met a 12-year-old girl, Kushboo, in the village of Bhairupura, not far from Jaipur. Bhairupura is a village of the Raigar people, a scheduled caste who traditionally work in shoe-making. There’s nothing beyond the village but forest. Few outsiders visit Bhairupura, except for the agents working for the carpet manufacturers who operate modern factories in Jaipur.

Those factories are where international buyers are brought to tour. But many of their rugs are not produced at these locations. Rather, they are being made in villages like Bhairupura, by children like Kushboo – a cheap, captive and unseen workforce.

Millions of modern-day slaves

Most of us don’t imagine that the goods we buy with the label Made in India, or any number of other countries, are tainted by child or forced labour. But the International Labour Organization estimates that 168 million child labourers and 21 million forced labourers are toiling away in the global economy. We also know that many people work in informal sectors – sub-contracted production outside of factory settings – where exploitation is commonplace.

In India, informal employment accounts for 84% of non-agricultural workers. Furthermore, the US Department of Labor has found that 136 products or components that we buy nearly every day are made using child or forced labour. Yet because these people are hidden, we have little data on how their numbers are spread across industry sectors. Simply put, we cannot help them if we do not know where they are.

Why are there so many exploited workers? A lengthy history lesson would provide that answer. The better question, however, is, why are there STILL so many exploited workers? To this I have a response: we are not looking for them in the right places.

Investing in the wrong places

The corporate sector is making efforts to create ethical supply chains – using their own compliance, quality assurance and monitoring teams. They are also hiring consultants and signing up to certification schemes. From 2011 to 2013 Fortune 500 companies spent almost $20 billion on corporate social responsibility and in 2012 businesses worldwide paid to have an estimated $31 billion of products certified by third-party labels, many of which specify no child or forced labour in their criteria.

The results of all this investment are mixed. While conditions for many factory workers have improved, the most vulnerable people have seen few benefits.

Time motion studies would show that companies are not reaching the whole supply chain, that the quantity of goods is too high to come only from reported, factory-based sites. Yet because the factory level is where most corporate social responsibility efforts stop, the bottom of the supply chain is neglected. But it's here, at the bottom of the suply chain, that we're most likely to find a decentralized and unregulated workforce in difficult-to-trace locations. Often victims of discrimination, these are people who have never benefited from programmes to protect their human rights, including their rights to freedom, physical safety and access to education.

My organization just completed an eight-month fact-finding process, and more than 70 experts agreed that there is a gap, a disconnect in the market. As Dan Viederman of Verite told us: “The number of companies that have successfully, on a sustained basis, dealt with the issue of child labour is far too close to zero.” Joost Kooijmans, a senior advisor on child labour at UNICEF agreed: “Look at the dirty end, the lower tiers (of production chains). And there, I don’t see many organizations that have expertise in doing this.”

The nature of this market gap is straightforward, the market being the supply chain monitoring in which companies invest, the gap being a dearth of expertise and on-the-ground capacity to reach the most vulnerable workers. Says Humanity United’s Ed Marcum, “There is a shortage of tools and solutions. The tools that do exist are nascent and early stage; they are not viable yet.”

The way forward

To pinpoint the problem is also to underscore a solution, especially where governments are failing. Companies must deploy deep supply chain investigation and remediation. But there is a distinction between ensuring an absence of child labour from production sites, and stopping child labour altogether, which requires dismantling a series of social norms and other conditions that encourage exploitation. By opening their supply chains to full mapping and accountability for all producers, businesses can take a huge step in achieving both.

This is in the future, with several factors driving companies towards greater accountability: local regulatory enforcement, international trade policy, consumer demand, risk management, and a growing business case that couples ethical supply chains with higher margins, product quality and supply.

Almost every major brand is touched by child labour. As I write this, I am in Nepal, where I visited 49 children who now live at the Hamro Ghar (Our Home) rehabilitation centre for rescued child labourers. Like Kushboo, the stories of their abuse play out every day, all over the world. I wish I could tell these young survivors that the world is watching, and companies are doing what they must to make sure that more children are not swallowed by a system that discards their basic rights. When the day comes that I can tell them this with confidence, it will be the pinnacle of my career.

The author is part of the 2016 class of Schwab Social Entrepreneurs.

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