Child labour: The skeleton in your closet

Child labour is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development”. It is against the law in almost every country, and violates two ILO Conventions as well as the near-universally ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Sadly though, despite its recognition as a flagrant abuse of children’s rights, it remains prevalent across the world: at least 168 million children were engaged in some form child labour in 2013, according to the ILO. An estimated 85 million of these children were found to be working in “hazardous conditions”, endangering their health and safety and denying them their right to an education. 

From smartphones, jewellery and make-up to coffee, tea and chocolate, child labour is rife in the supply chains of goods we use and consume every day – and the clothes we wear are no exception…

Child labour in the fast fashion industry

Driven by consumer demand for cheap, on-trend garments, the rise of ‘fast fashion’ has seen clothing manufacturers pursuing ever-cheaper sources of labour to meet fast-moving production deadlines. Textile and garment workers commonly endure long hours, poor conditions and low wages – and all too often children are seen as the ideal, easy-to-exploit candidates for this type of work. 

Every year in India, for example, up to half a million children work tirelessly in the fields cross-pollinating cotton plants; around 200,000 of India’s child cotton workers are below the age of 14, and the majority are girls from poor, disadvantaged Dalit and Adivasi families. Working long hours in the sun for low wages, these children are often exposed to harmful pesticides as well as physical and sexual abuse.  

Some of the most notorious ‘cotton crimes’ take place in Uzbekistan, where every year the government forces millions of teenagers (and adults) out of school and into the fields, to sow and harvest cotton for export. In Egypt too, up to a million children every year spend the harvest season picking and removing pests from cotton plants. The work takes its toll, and children commonly suffer exhaustion and malnutrition following weeks or months of arduous labour. 

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But it doesn’t stop there. The use of child labour extends beyond the cotton fields into numerous subsequent stages of textile and garment production. 

In India, girls as young as 10 are ’employed’ in spinning mills and factories, where they work long hours ginning raw cotton and spinning it into yarn, before weaving it into fabric to be bleached and dyed. Similarly, young girls in Bangladesh and Cambodia, and Syrian refugee children in Turkey, endure harsh treatment and poor conditions as they assemble and embellish garments to be exported to retailers in Europe, the US and beyond. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) has also reported the use of child labour in garment factories in China, Thailand and Pakistan. 

Unfortunately there is a worrying lack of adequate or enforced safety standards in many of these factories and spinning mills, and building quality is typically poor. As a result thousands of workers have been injured and killed throughout the years, both in factory fires and in building collapses like the notorious 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. On top of this, poor ventilation combined with prolonged exposure to cotton dust and formaldehyde – a suspected carcinogen used to treat fabric – also puts workers at risk of serious respiratory (and other) diseases.

Taking responsibility

Countless popular clothing brands – including H&M, NextZaraPrimarkGap, and Victoria’s Secretamong others – have come under fire in the past following the discovery of child labour at some stage in their supply chains. To their credit, many have begun taking notice of the issue and taking (baby) steps towards tackling it – if only to salvage their public image. 

In 2007 for example, Gap discontinued the sale of one of its blouses found to be made using child labour in India, and in 2008 Primark fired three Indian suppliers that were employing children to embroider garments. 

In light of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, over 200 clothing brands have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which aims to increase worker empowerment and ensure safer working conditions in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry. Further still, some 218 popular fashion and apparel brands – including the likes of H&M, Gap, Primark, Zara, Disney and Adidas – have signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, committing to ‘not knowingly’ source cotton from Uzbekistan until its government ends the use of forced child and adult labour during its cotton harvest. Over 120 brands have also signed up to the Fair Wear Foundation’s code of labour standards, which prohibits the use of child labour.

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There is no doubt these are all positive and encouraging signs, but sadly the issue remains that child labour continues to pervade almost every stage of complex garment supply chains – and as a result, it easily has the potential to slip under the radar. 

In fact, a 2015 Free2Work report found that 75% of surveyed fashion brands couldn’t pinpoint the source of all their fabrics and inputs. 

As fashion brands continue demanding the rapid production of high volumes of low-cost garments, their overseas suppliers are incentivised to minimise costs as much as possible; unfortunately, this is often achieved by the secretive subcontracting of orders to smaller, informal factories where the use of child labour (and child-labour-produced cotton) is less likely to be detected.

While it is a huge undertaking for clothing brands to ensure regular, thorough inspections  of their supply chains, this is an essential step in the eradication of forced labour and exploitation in the garment industryThe Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations has called on fashion brands to prioritise inspection and auditing efforts, and also to demonstrate more responsible purchasing practices by paying fairer prices for ready-made garments, and by lightening the demands they place on overseas suppliers.

To find out more…

~ The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations: http://www.somo.nl/publications-en/Publication_4058 

~ Free2Work: http://www.free2work.org/trends/apparel2015/

~ The Fair Wear Foundation: http://www.fairwear.org

~ The Ethical Trading Initiative: http://www.ethicaltrade.org/about-eti

~ Anti-Slavery International: http://www.antislavery.org/english/slavery_today/slavery_and_what_we_buy/default.aspx

~ Stop Child Labour: http://www.stopchildlabour.eu

This article was written by Amy Simon

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