Advancing the Rights and Wellbeing of Children through Trade
The world our children inherit will be shaped by the agreements reached by governments at the 2021 summits, including the G7, G20 and COP26. A core focus must be to support the health and wellbeing of the world’s children, including consideration of the trade policies nations should adopt to build a better future for the world’s children and workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic created an economic crisis unseen since the Great Depression. As a result of the pandemic, an additional 8 million Americans are estimated to have fallen below the poverty line in 2020. Globally, the ILO estimates COVID-19 led to the loss of an equivalent of 255 million jobs in 2020 and between 119 million and 124 million people worldwide slipped into poverty in 2020. Globally, at least 340 million children have vitamin and mineral deficiencies and 149 million children are affected by stunted growth and development; in the United States 13 million children face hunger.
The pandemic also exacerbated already high rates of traumas, such as household violence, abuse and neglect in children. The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our safety nets, as well as the economic systems which have allowed want and economic insecurity to pervade. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage much of the world in a health and economic crisis, nations are coming together for multilateral engagements to establish fair rules of the road for the future. Trade and the conditions and standards that undergird our global economic system will be central to these discussions and outcomes.
The G7 governments have an obligation to work with nations around the world to rebuild our global economic system in a manner that ensures fairness. Nations should reject systems that prioritize the creation of vast wealth for the few, at the expense of workers and the wellbeing of our children.
Putting the world’s workers and children at the forefront of a new system of trade is more than just the right thing to do. When we invest in our children and build structures with their wellbeing in mind, we enhance long-term economic growth and increase the chances that wealth will be more fairly distributed. In doing so, we create an economic system in which every person is more able to withstand shocks and storms.
The children of the world deserve to live and grow in societies where they are free from hunger, where they are safe from harm, where they have the freedom to learn, where they have the freedom to be healthy and to grow up in families that are economically secure. These are the fundamental conditions necessary for a healthy start for every child. Every child in every country should have the freedom and opportunity to reach their full potential. For too many children across the world, opportunities are destroyed by poverty, by conflict, by discrimination and by the choices made by government.
A new, fairer system for children and a worker-focused system of trade begins with the premise that supporting the whole child means supporting the whole family. Ensuring citizens of every nation have fundamental worker rights and are paid a fair wage provides a firmer foundation for children to grow and learn. We must strongly support the rights of women and girls, who face discrimination around the world. Every nation must commit to ending all trade in goods produced with forced labor and child labor and to supporting policies that address climate change and that help communities most impacted by economic or environmental shocks. Our most vulnerable communities will be the first to suffer the consequences of climate inaction and will be the least prepared to respond. We have a moral responsibility to dismantle the policies that incentivize both domestic and global environmental injustices and rebuild a system that prioritizes equity and justice.
Trade is a powerful tool to leverage fairness in the global economic system. Nations should use that leverage to ensure that children are provided with the support they need to reach the full measure of their potential.
Worker Rights and Child Labor
The scourge of child labor cannot be addressed without a recognition of the root causes: the lack of worker rights, lax enforcement and the lack of family sustaining wages for parents. No parent wants to send their child to work in the mines or fields, rather than having them learning in school.
For too long, the global fixation on “cheap” goods has ignored the conditions under which those goods are produced: exploitive wages, distorted markets, poor labor conditions, forced labor, child labor, as well as a disregard for the global environmental commons and subsidies. If democracies ignore the conditions under which global goods and commodities are produced, we perpetuate the advancement of authoritarian regimes that thrive on the repression of their own citizens and those around the world.
The founders of our global economic system recognized the distorting impacts of the repression of workers and sought to address them. However, business interests of the day prevailed and we cannot repeat those mistakes. Nations around the world must work to enact measures to support fair competition and address the cost differentials derived from the repression of workers and wages. Countries and companies must be held to account on discrimination, in any form, on repression of worker rights and wages and for violations of International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on child labor. However, child labor cannot be addressed without establishing fair conditions for workers, mothers and fathers, across an economy. That means ensuring people everywhere have the right to freedom of association and to collectively bargain, so that parents, and all workers, can earn family sustaining wages.
The AFL-CIO, working with a coalition of business and non-governmental organizations, is advocating for a Global Social Protection Fund which would create a floor for conditions of work and wages, enforceable rights and universal social protection for all workers and their families. Stronger protections for workers create stronger societies and social and economic structures for children.
Rights of Women and Girls
Women and girls, face discrimination in nations around the world. Many countries have laws that restrict the rights of women and girls to own property, to inheritance, to divorce, to child custody, to banking, and equal access to an education. The UN estimates 2.5 billion women and girls live in countries with laws that discriminate against them.
Analysis from the UN found that 750 million girls and women were married before turning 18. There are 530 million women who are illiterate — more than two-thirds of the global total. These disparities do not happen on their own; just 39 percent girls living in rural areas attend secondary school and 59 percent of girls living in urban areas. When girls grow up in societies that discriminate against them, they are adversely affected for life. They pay a terrible price. Ultimately, we all pay.
Trade, and the rules we establish around the terms of trade as they relate to climate change, will define whether the world embarks on a race to the top, with high standards that prevent the offshoring of pollution, or a race for the bottom, where countries are able to skirt standards.
The advancement of women’s rights and economic empowerment is a matter of human rights, economics and global security. A 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that reducing or eliminating gender-based discrimination could increase global GDP by $12 trillion to $28 trillion. Research by Dr. Valerie Hudson draws the connection between gender discrimination, particularly as it relates to family law, and broader societal outcomes. Discrimination against women has significant consequences for a society, with worse outcomes for: conflict, stability, economic performance, governance, and food security.
Women don’t simply face discrimination in the workplace, women face discrimination at every stage of life. This is one of the reasons the UN has focused on family law in its work to end gender based discrimination in law by 2030. Trade laws and practices should support equal protection under the law, regardless of gender, and end discrimination in all forms.
The United States Congress is working to reauthorize America’s trade preference program, the Generalized System of Preferences. The inclusion of binding measures on women’s economic empowerment, equal protection under law, non-discrimination, and human rights should be central to that effort. Nations should consider doing the same with respect to their own trade preference programs, as well as measures related to the ILO convention on violence and harassment in the workplace. The challenge of addressing the cultural and legal barriers that allow discrimination against women and girls is great, but nations must act together to confront this challenge using every trade, economic and diplomatic tool at our disposal.
Democracies have the power to speak with one voice with respect to advancing the rights of women and girls and articulating women’s economic empowerment and participation as critical element of future trade agreements and core criteria to each nation’s respective trade and development programs. Democracies must act together to improve the status of women and girls globally.
Climate change is an existential threat to human life that we must address with urgency. Our children and grandchildren bear the cost of inaction and pay the price. It is for them that we must take action and marshal the whole of our government, and governments across the world, to address the climate crisis. Trade can be a critical element to support and advance high standards agreements and to prevent the offshoring of pollution.
The climate crisis is already resulting in higher sea levels, warmer oceans and more intense droughts that threaten crops and freshwater supplies. The climate crisis will increase economic insecurity and exacerbate factors that can lead to conflict. The last decade was the warmest on record, with devastating effects for the poorest and most vulnerable communities. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause as many as 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, as a result of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress alone. That number is a conservative estimate, because it does not include deaths from other climate-sensitive health outcomes or deaths resulting from the disruption of health services following extreme weather and climate events. As we look to protect the most vulnerable communities, we know that further sea level rise may expose an additional 10 million people to flooding if we see a temperature increase of 2°C rather than the 1.5°C that the science now demands.
The nations of the world have a tremendous opportunity to re-center policy on the principles of fairness. Let us commit to a path where children and their families are the moral center of our decision-making; and where trade is “a force for good”.
Trade, and the rules we establish around the terms of trade as they relate to climate change mitigation efforts, will define whether the world embarks on a race to the top, in support of high standards and decisive action, or a race for the bottom, where countries are able to skirt standards. The objective of reducing global climate pollution is urgent, but it will be hollow if workers are exploited in the process. As we work to build a low carbon future and ensure a just transition, governments must commit to having workers and unions at the table from the outset. The world, and our world’s children, depend on upholding climate commitments alongside commitments to workers.
In taking these steps, we must recognize that trade has winners and losers. Nation’s must focus on helping the workers of today in the communities where they live. The gains of trade are often spread across an entire economy and disproportionately directed at those already in a strong economic position to benefit. The losses from trade tend to be more localized and can disproportionately impact already marginalized communities, workers, and their children. These shocks can result in localized recessions and also cause shifts in the composition of workforces, including pushing women out of export-oriented sectors as those jobs become more desirable. Policymakers must do more to recognize these potentially disruptive forces and take mitigating action. Governments around the world, including the U.S., should consider adopting stronger measures to support communities address climate change, during localized recessions and following an adverse trade impact on that community. In so doing, we will support economic resiliency for parents and communities.
Ensuring fair terms of trade is essential to the effort to rebuild and “build back better” globally. These measures will be critical to ensuring children grow up in households where parents are economically secure; in nations where their opportunities are not limited by their gender; and in communities not torn apart by the impacts of climate change, floods, storms, drought and sea level rise.
We ought to consider policy through a simple frame: “how will this benefit a nation’s children?” This question should be our compass as we rebuild our global economic system around the principles of fairness, and embark on a long journey to protect, nurture and educate our children.
The nations of the world have a tremendous opportunity to rebuild a global economic system centered on the principles of fairness by revisiting and re-writing the terms and conditions of trade that for too long have allowed firms and countries to compete by way of the repression of workers at the expense of children and their families. Let us commit to a new path, one where children and their families are the moral center of our decision-making; one where the economic and structural conditions provide for a long-term commitment to communities and children; and one where trade is “a force for good”.
Please note that the views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF UK.