Play is the work of the child.Maria Montessori
In a globalised world where factories are in a “race to the bottom” to provide cheap fashion fast, children are often involved in the supply chain. For unscrupulous businesses, they constitute a cheap, compliant, and easily exploited labour force.
The sad truth of child labour
Around 160 million children are employed worldwide, of whom an estimated 79 million are engaged in the kind of child labour the International Labour Organisation—and we—think should be eradicated.
UNICEF’s Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education.” This does not mean that children should not be allowed to do chores around the house or undertake suitable light work in the family business on the family farm, for instance. It does mean, however, that;
- Children should not be put into situations that might be harmful to their health or general well being;
- Asked to perform physically arduous tasks; or
- Have their rights (including the right to play, relaxation, and an education) compromised.
Why does child labour exist?
The reason many companies choose to employ children is that they slip so easily under the radar. According to Sofie Ovaa of Stop Child Labour, one of the reasons children are so vulnerable is because “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.”
According to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, many companies are now aware of who their suppliers are at the final stage of manufacturing their clothing. “Although the majority of companies have begun tracing suppliers at these deeper stages of their supply chain, it is evident that many still have no knowledge of where their inputs and raw materials are being sourced. With less visibility, comes greater risk. The prominence of forced and child labour is well documented at these earlier stages of production.”
Child labour is a lose-lose situation
Because of their vulnerability, many companies will employ children in preference to adults. According to The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, “There is a clear link between child labour and low wages for adult workers, both in agriculture (cotton production) and in garment factories.” They argue that if “child labour was banned, labour would become more scarce, which would allow adult workers to negotiate better wages and improve labour conditions.”
This means that high levels of child labour may, in fact, correlate with adult unemployment and underemployment. If children are being paid less than adults to do the same job, families are worse off. If adults are paid a living wage, their children can have the opportunity to get an education, thus giving them more opportunities to break the cycle of poverty.
Some may argue for the value of giving children opportunities to work and learn skills from a young age, such as apprenticeships that set them up with a trade for the rest of their lives. However, there is a big difference between helping out on a neighbour’s farm or learning a worthwhile trade and working for 12 hours in an unsafe and unsanitary factory.
There is arguably no part of the fashion industry that contributes to the well-being of a young child or gives them skills they could not equally learn later in life. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, where children work long hours for little pay, this can be seen as prohibitive to a child ever moving into more skilled employment as an adult, as they will never have the opportunity to gain skills in other areas.
Child labour in the cotton industry
Child labour can be found at all levels of the fashion industry, and nowhere is this more evident than cotton production. In the cotton industry, children have historically been used to cross-pollinate the cotton plants, to harvest the crop, and in spinning, weaving, and dyeing mills.
This has been particularly evident in Uzbekistan, where government workers reportedly forced children to spend the summer months picking cotton and even threatened them with expulsion from school if they did not comply. However, after the campaigning and backlash from international activist organisations in the past few years, the ILO has reported “a huge drop in the number of school children being used in the cotton harvest.”
In cotton mills in Southern India in the past, poor girls were often enticed to work in circumstances that are virtually bonded labour. Factory managers may even have had hormones put in their food to stop them from menstruating, as women are seen to be less productive during their menstrual period. However, according to a recent report, the Indian textile industry has “stepped up efforts to eradicate employment of child labour so as to keep their exports intact in the world markets.”
“Fast fashion has engendered a race to the bottom, pushing companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labour,” says a UNICEF report. “That cheap labour is freely available in many of the countries where textile and garment production takes place.”
Given that only 11% of brands included in the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index publish selected raw material suppliers, this raises concerns regarding the extent to which the average consumer unknowingly supports the exploitative measures in many parts of the supply chain.
What can we do?
The world we live in encompasses a vast amount of inequality, which no doubt exacerbates child labour and the exploitation of millions. As informed citizens, we have a responsibility to use our voices and our wallets to create change. If consumers refuse to buy products from companies known to use child labour, it becomes worthwhile for them to find other means of production. This has been shown to work in the past with companies like Nike, which reformed its labour policies due to consumer pressure.
Although it can sound very bleak, things have been improving. The number of children in child labour has declined by one-third since 2000, from 246 million to 160 million children. Around half of them (79 million) are in hazardous work (down from 170 million in 2000). This was particularly the case for girls engaged in child labour, the rate of which fell by 40% since 2000, compared to 25% for boys. Despite this, the ILO reports that “Global progress against child labour has stalled since 2016”, as seen in the numbers, which have unfortunately held steady.
Despite being somewhat overwhelming, these stats paint the beginnings of an encouraging story. And several accreditations, such as Fair Trade, work to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.
The debates surrounding child labour are complex, which is why they require careful attention. Marginalised children and adults both need better options to begin to break the cycle of poverty. As consumers, we can take responsibility for our small role in the system.
It is possible to pay workers a fair wage and still make beautiful, affordable fashion. By choosing to support companies that don’t exploit the world’s most vulnerable groups, we can send a strong message.