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Not Quite Orphans: The left-behind children of migrant workers

Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What role should CSR play in protecting the children of migrant workers?

This is the second in a three-part series about Corporate Social Responsibility and children's rights based on the Children's Rights and Business Principles.

Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are migrants, many of them moving in search of work, often within their own countries. Millions of these migrant workers travel alone, leaving their children behind with a spouse or, if both parents migrate, other relatives. The numbers are staggering: 58 million children are left behind in China. 9 million in the Philippines. 1 million in Sri Lanka. Reports for other countries number in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

The path to a better life?

What drives parents to leave their children behind? Limited employment options. Poverty. Desperation. A hope for a better life for their children. But what kind of life do these children have with their parents unavailable to offer the most basic of comforts: a hug, a smile, a kind word, parental nurturing and guidance?

A recently published photo gallery is striking in its depiction of migrant workers posed with large pictures of the children they left behind. Here are some of the captions:

"Zhang Jianfang and his wife moved to Shenzhen ten years ago to seek work. They left behind two children, and have only been back four times since."

"Wang Jianjun has only an elementary school education, and left his daughter behind many years ago to seek part-time work on construction projects all over China. He hopes she can have an easier life by going to university."

While the increased income from migrant parents can help ease some of the economic strain on a household, the effects on the children can be damaging. The impact of parental absence on the children of migrant workers often means increased responsibility at home, pressure to become migrant laborers themselves, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, psychosocial problems, violent behaviour, increased risk of physical and sexual abuse, and increased risk of trafficking. So much for the path to a better life.

Who is responsible?

Parents migrating for work is clearly not always in the best interests of children. But whose responsibility is it to ensure that their children are well cared for in their absence? Is it that of the parents who have been forced to choose money or family but not both? Is it that of the companies who hire the parents? Or should governments step in to ensure their youngest citizens do not suffer long-term damage as a result of their parents' migration?

While it's a complex issue, businesses do need to recognize their expanded sphere of influence and help to mitigate the effects. The new Children's Rights and Business Principles states that businesses should provide decent working conditions that also support workers, both women and men, in their roles as parents or caregivers; support migrant and seasonal workers with distance parenting; and facilitate access to good quality childcare, health care and education for dependants.

There are some initiatives that attempt to address this issue. A partnership between a multinational and a Chinese NGO has created a program intended to help alleviate some of the challenges of parenting from a far-away city. Parent-to-child telephone cards, or 'love cards', facilitate regular communication between migrant workers and their children. But one has to seriously question the efficacy of such a gesture. What is the possible expected outcome of this effort? How can telephone calls possibly make up for a lack of parental care and attention?

Why not do more?

Efforts to help migrant workers with distance parenting don't change the fact that families are being split up for economic reasons and business benefits as a result. Children have the right to benefit from the care of their family. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes special provision. Article 5 of the Convention recognizes the parent's responsibility to protect their children and for children to benefit from parental care. Article 9 specifically addresses the protection of children when separated from their parents. A child has the right to a family and the protection offered by the family relationship.

If we are to have sustainable societies, the issue of migrant workers and the families they leave behind must be on the radar of the public and private sectors. Children's Rights and Business Principles and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are derived from evidence-based practices that result in the best outcomes for children and for society and cannot be ignored or dismissed as inconsequential.

I've talked before about the need for transformational partnerships: collaboration between the private sector, non-profits or NGOs and governments to bring about holistic and sustainable solutions. This is perfect example of an instance where corporations and government could work together under a guideline like the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By leveraging the strengths of both parties, innovative solutions can be found to protect from harm the children left behind.

Some corporations have stepped out of their comfort zone and are already doing more.

Instead of hiring workers forced out of their communities in search of work, some companies are able to bring the work to those communities. Take MAS Holdings, for example. A supplier to apparel companies like Victoria's Secret, Gap, Marks & Spencer and Nike, MAS based some of its Sri Lankan operations near villages so that workers would not have to leave their families behind. According to a 2006 article, they also provide transport to work, free meals, medical care and on-site banking at all its plants and fund hospitals, schools and scholarships in the rural villages where their plants are located. "We believe strongly that if the people we work with have their basic needs taken care of, they are freer to concentrate on the work at hand and bring out their best," said Mahesh Amalean, one of the company's founders.

The example of MAS Holdings needs to be emulated in other countries the world over. Bringing work to the people instead of the people to the work will help to create thriving, sustainable communities. We need courageous leaders willing to make this type of development the norm. And we need them to do it now. The futures of millions of children depend on it.

Photo by Flickr user mckaysavage