Blockchain vs. Child Labor: The Tech Revolution We Need

Blockchain vs. Child Labor

Imagine discovering that the phone in your pocket or the chocolate you just enjoyed was made using child labor. This unsettling reality is often hidden behind the production of everyday items, including electronics and food. Child labor is particularly prevalent in industries like cobalt mining and cocoa production. 

A BBC investigation even uncovered its presence in the supply chains of well-known cosmetics brands. Despite large corporations implementing zero-tolerance policies, many remain unaware that child labor persists within their intricate manufacturing processes. 

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Research indicates that child labor is widespread in international supply chains, with UN figures from 2021 estimating around 160 million child laborers globally. Addressing this issue has proven challenging. Various approaches, including audits, due diligence policies, and efforts to secure responsible sourcing, have met with mixed success. However, blockchain technology presents a promising potential solution.

Blockchains, commonly associated with cryptocurrency transactions, are digital databases designed to store and share information securely. This technology can ensure data security and transparency across global supply chains, acting like a virtual ledger. By tracking transactions, blockchain could help ensure products are made ethically and free from child labor.

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Here’s how it could work: upon harvesting or mining a product, it is assigned a digital ID, recording its details like a digital birth certificate. Each time the product is transported or processed, a new block of information is added to its ID, forming a blockchain that traces the product’s journey and any actions taken. 

If major companies could access this information, supply chain transparency would significantly improve. The technology’s ability to record a product’s journey from start to finish would make it difficult to conceal unethical practices like child labor. 

Smart contracts—contracts written in programming code—could also verify compliance with labor standards, triggering audits or recording ethical practices. Additionally, blockchain could secure all payment records, ensuring workers receive fair compensation and holding companies accountable for unfair practices. 

It could also settle disputes along the supply chain by providing a digital logbook of transactions. Workers could use secure digital IDs to verify that only those legally permitted to work are employed, preventing child labor. However, implementing blockchain technology is not a simple fix. 

While it could enhance tracking and accountability, large corporations might adopt it in ways that primarily benefit their operations and reputation, setting rules and standards that smaller suppliers cannot access.  Closed blockchain systems could further empower large firms, potentially worsening conditions for smaller suppliers.

Moreover, in developing economies, many small-scale farmers and suppliers lack the necessary technological infrastructure—such as smartphones or reliable internet connections—to implement blockchain technology.  Recent research suggests that transactions could be recorded via text messages, allowing farmers with basic mobile phones to document transactions. 

This method would securely record information in a blockchain, ensuring transparency and enabling farmers with limited access to technology to engage in fairer, more accountable supply chains.

In conclusion, blockchain technology holds promise for reducing child labor in global supply chains by improving transparency and accountability. However, its successful implementation requires addressing challenges related to technological access and ensuring equitable benefits for all stakeholders.

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