Where, why and what can be done
Around 260 million children are in employment around the world, according to the International Labour Organisation (pdf). Of them, the ILO estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, defined by the UN as “work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”.
Child labour is forbidden by law in most countries but continues to be rife in some of the poorest parts of the world.
“The ILO estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond”
The situation is improving. ILO estimates suggest child labour declined by 30% between 2000 and 2012, but still 11% of the world’s children are in situations that deprive them of their right to go to school without interference from work.
Many of these child labourers work within the fashion supply chain, making the textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.
Why does it exist?
Fast fashion has engendered a race to the bottom, pushing companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labour. That cheap labour is freely available in many of the countries where textile and garment production takes place.
Sofie Ovaa, global campaign coordinator of Stop Child Labour, says: “There are many girls in countries like India and Bangladesh, who are willing to work for very low prices and are easily brought into these industries under false promises of earning decent wages.”
A recent report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) revealed that recruiters in southern India convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to spinning mills with promises of a well-paid job, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years. Their field research shows that “in reality, they are working under appalling conditions that amount to modern day slavery and the worst forms of child labour”.
Child labour is a particular issue for fashion because much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labour and some tasks are even better suited to children than adults. In cotton picking, employers prefer to hire children for their small fingers, which do not damage the crop.
Children are seen as obedient workers who slip under the radar, making them easy to manage. Ovaa says: “There is no supervision or social control mechanisms, no unions that can help them to bargain for better working conditions. These are very low-skilled workers without a voice, so they are easy targets.”
Employers get away with it because the fashion supply chain is hugely complex and it is hard for companies to control every stage of production. That makes it possible to employ children without big brands and consumers ever finding out.
Where is it happening?
The countries highlighted above were identified by SOMO as particularly notorious for child labour in the textile and garment industry
Children work at all stages of the supply chain in the fashion industry: from the production of cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, right through to the different phases of putting garments together in factories across Bangladesh.
In the cotton industry, children are employed to transfer pollen from one plant to another. They are subjected to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and they are often paid below the minimum wage. In developing countries where cotton is one of the main crops, children are enlisted to help harvest the delicate crop and reports suggest (pdf) they work long hours sowing cotton in the spring, followed by weeding through the summer months.
“An estimated 170 million children are engaged in child labour, or 11% of the global population of children, according to the International Labour Organisation”
At the next step of the chain, in the yarn and spinning mills, child labour is rampant. The SOMO report (pdf) found that 60% of workers at the mills it investigated in India were under-18 when they started working there; the youngest workers were 15 when they joined.
Children also work in the “cut-make-trim” stage, when clothes are put together. SOMO says: “In garment factories, children perform diverse and often arduous tasks such as dyeing, sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, folding, moving and packing garments. In small workshops and home sites, children are put to work on intricate tasks such as embroidering, sequinning and smocking (making pleats).”
What are the challenges?
One of the biggest challenges in tackling child labour in the fashion supply chain is the complex supply chain for each garment. Even when brands have strict guidelines in place for suppliers, work often gets sub-contracted to other factories that the buyer may not even know about.
Ovaa says: “Companies that sell their products in Europe and the US have no clue where the organic cotton clothing come from. Maybe they know their first supplier and there are codes of conduct in place, but further down the chain in the lower tiers it is very difficult to understand where the cotton comes from.”
Tackling child labour is further complicated by the fact it is just a symptom of larger problems. Where there is extreme poverty, there will be children willing to work cheaply and susceptible to being tricked into dangerous or badly paid work.
Lotte Schuurman at the Fair Wear Foundation says if parents have no education they will end up in low-paid work; their children will be forced to work, they will miss out on their education, and they too will end up in low-paid work as adults. “You need to get out of that vicious circle of poverty to decline child labour,” she says.
What can businesses do?
Schuurman says there are practical steps that companies can take to rid their supply chains of child labour. “Brands can start off by creating a supply register. Fashion brands normally have 200 or more suppliers. You should start by knowing who your manufacturers are and visiting them.” On these visits, she says brand representatives must watch out for signs the factory is sub-contracting; they should be concerned, if the factory does not have enough workers for the amount of t-shirts it produces.
Companies can also address their purchasing practices, which can make working conditions worse. Schuurman says: “To meet tight deadlines or unanticipated orders, factories may sub-contract without informing the buying companies. Sometimes that is enforced by the brand; it puts too much pressure on the factory.” Companies can adjust their purchasing practices to lighten the load and ensure the factories they have inspected fulfil their orders, she says.
It is also important to make workers aware of their rights so they know where to file a complaint. “Although most clothing brands don’t own their own factories, they do have a lot of influence. We want to work with brands that want to work with their factories,” says Schuurman.