Activist’s open letter to Pope Francis calling for end to child labour

Fernando Morales-de la Cruz is a campaigner for an end to child labour. Picture: Supplied

Fernando Morales-de la Cruz is a campaigner for an end to child labour. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 16, 2024


By Fernando Morales-de la Cruz

This letter was sent to Pope Francis by child labour activist and advocate Fernando Morales-de la Cruz from Davos, where Morales-de la Cruz is attending the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Holy Father,

Ten years ago I decided to dedicate my life to the elimination of poverty and child labour in the supply chains of all companies and all developed nations.

It is the best and most important decision I have ever made in my life even though it has been a long, very hard and lonely struggle, trying to survive and move forward.

In 2017 I wrote you a letter. I am writing you again because you made the elimination of misery, slavery and child labour a personal priority in your pontificate at the head of the Catholic Church and because slavery and child labour have increased and the SDGs are failing miserably in the supply chains of hundreds of the corporations that gather at the WEF here in Davos and claim to be "Committed to improving the state of the world." 53 years after the creation of the WEF there are over 75 million children and millions of slaves working in the supply chains of 2,500 WEF participants, while most journalists in Davos look the other way.

I am extremely grateful for your leadership and commend you for your exemplary commitment to these noble causes. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for any other Head of State, Head of Government, senior politician or CEO of a large company. Not a single government or large company had a real plan to eliminate child labour by 2021, even though it was the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor and the world pledged at the UN to eliminate child labour by 2025.

WEF ESG Investment Class by Maarten Wolterink for @cartoons4change

In 2019 President Ursula von der Leyen pledged zero tolerance for child labour in EU trade. In 2021, the European Parliament demanded a ban on the import of goods produced by child labour. In 2023, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union agreed not to ban the import of goods produced by child labour.

I cried tears of joy at the G7 Summit in Elmau, Germany, when I learned that the G7 leaders committed to eliminate forced and child labour in their supply chains. I also cried with anger and frustration a few days later, when I realised that not a single German media outlet published what other leading journalists considered a historic commitment by the G7 leaders decided in Germany. There are too many multi-millionaire German families who profit from the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of children while the German media and the churches look the other way.

75 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 34 years after the Convention on the Rights of the Child and 8 years after the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, even the coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, computers, smartphones, clothes and many other products consumed or used by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Unicef Executive Director Catherine Russell, ILO Director General Gilbert F. Houngbo, by all G7 leaders and also by Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF, and his team are still partly produced by slaves or children.

Norway profits from the exploitation of tens of millions of children by Marteen Wolterink for @cartoons4change

I was born in Guatemala, a country where more than one million children need to work to survive, almost half of those children work in the supply chains of corporations or directly for companies. In Guatemala, as in most coffee producing nations, there is hunger, child malnutrition and child labour in the coffee plantations that produce what corporations and developed nations dare to call "ethical", "certified" or "Fair Trade" coffee. The value of world consumption of the coffee industry is 495 billion dollars a year, it generates tens of billions of dollars in profits and taxes and there continues to be hunger in the coffee plantations because the coffee industry refuses to share US$ 0.10 per cup with the coffee producing regions. The same is true in many other industries. Many large companies have business models opposed to the SDGs.

As you well know, there is also child labour in the mate produced in Misiones, Argentina, and probably also in the mate and coffee you drink at the Vatican. In Guatemala, as in many countries, there is also child labour in sugar, vegetables, fruits, etc. Tens of thousands of Guatemalan children harvest coffee in Honduras and Mexico, and Guatemalan children are the largest group of children working for companies in the United States. Guatemalan children are not even one-third of one percent of all working children in the world.

I have been saying for many years that the problem of child labour is more than twice as serious as UNICEF and the ILO estimate. They claim that 160 million children work; a recent academic study by Lichand and Wolf estimates that more than 373 million children are working today. I believe that more than 120 million of these children work in corporate supply chains or directly for companies. The child labour business is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

There are more than one million children working in the European Union, 336,000 children work in Italy alone. In the United States almost one million children work. Tens of millions of children work in European Union supply chains and tens of millions of children work in US supply chains. Switzerland has more children working in its coffee, tea and cocoa supply chains than there are children studying in all Swiss schools.

It is absolutely unacceptable, unethical, cruel and illegal for developed nations and corporations to have starvation, child malnutrition and child labour in their supply chains as a result of trade/business models that reduce costs and increase profits without any consideration of the devastating impact on human beings.

Here in Davos the false narratives of investors, business leaders, UN, NGO and World Economic Forum officials seem to be protected by hundreds of journalists who dare not ask the hard questions or publish the truth about how many corporations or organizations do the opposite of Improving the State of the World when they engage with the poor and powerless. Of course, most of the politicians and officials who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos also seem to be here only to seek the support of investors and corporations and not to defend the interests of the people they represent.

If we want to eliminate misery, hunger, child malnutrition, forced labour and child labour, some journalists must change their attitude of indifference to misery, neutrality in the face of injustice and, in some cases, even complicity with the exploiters. Some key investors must become true ethical investors. At present, Christian and Catholic churches are not leading a global movement of ethical investors to eliminate exploitation in corporate business models. They must do so to be consistent with the faith they profess.

Many of the public servant pension funds such as CalPERS, CalSTRS, OTPP, etc. own shares in companies that exploit hundreds of thousands of helpless children and do not demand change. Norway, the world's largest single investor, with over $1.3 trillion in AUM and shares in over 9,200 corporations, profits from the exploitation of tens of millions of children and millions of modern slaves by investing in hundreds of corporations that exploit minors and workers to increase their profits. This is illegal under Norwegian law and also violates Norway's state obligations to respect and protect human rights and children's rights.

Norway could lead as a shareholder in initiatives to cease exploitation, eliminate misery, child labour and slavery in all companies in which it is a shareholder but the Prime Minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian Parliament, the Governor of Norges Bank, Ida Wolden Bache, and the CEO of Norway's pension fund, Nikolai Tangen, have not been interested in doing so, although that is their legal obligation.

Although it seems almost impossible in the current scenario, I believe that eliminating misery, hunger, child malnutrition and child labour and achieving prosperity in corporate supply chains is realistic in the not too distant future forcing the implementation of new business models. This is what I am focused on.

I wish you good health and success in your very important mission. I dare to ask for your support and your blessings.

I am honoured to have the deepest respect for you. Your Holiness' most obedient and humble servant,

Fernando Morales-de la Cruz

* Fernando Morales-de la Cruz is a fierce campaigner and advocate for an end to child labour globally.