“Lives of littles ones are destroyed, when child labour is employed.”


Child labour has been one of the most pressing issues since the beginning of time, which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. It is not unusual to see children as young as seven or eight taken as cheap labourers in various industries, or being subjected to physical abuse in these workplaces. According to the UN, the term “child labour” is defined as a type of “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.”


Children are forced into the workforce at a young age instead of education, hence becoming the primary breadwinners of families with financial and economic difficulties. Their fundamental rights are taken away, and this results in severe repercussions, whether it be on an individual level or global scale. The effects are not just limited to physical and mental well-being, but further branch out to the economy and growth of the country. Both girls and boys are victims of child labour; one distinct difference that may be noted is while boys are frequently taken into armed forces or used as cheap labour in industries, girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. One booming industry that has come under extreme scrutiny for its extensive employment of children, is the textile and fashion industry.


“Approximately 170 million are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments.”


It has been confirmed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that a large percentage of 170 million child labourers are forced to make textiles and garments in order to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and worldwide. Common Objective (CO) a global business network for the fashion industry, echoes a similar statistic: out of 151.6 million labourers aged between five and 17 years, almost half of them are found in hazardous work including in fashion supply chains. This is a common practice in various countries, but it is more often so in developing countries as opposed to in developed nations. Countries with the highest rate of labourers in this sector include India (5.8 million), followed by Bangladesh (5.0 million), Pakistan (3.4 million) and Nepal (2.0 million).


“Children should have pens in their hands, not tools.” -Iqbal Masih


It is important to consider how the industry is able to have access to child workers. It is known that 51 countries use child labour in at least one section of their garment or jewellery supply chains, with half a million children forced to work producing cotton seeds for the garments. Estimating exact numbers involved in specific tasks in this sector is difficult, as many of these children have fake identifications or no birth certificates. Others are employed to work in a seasonal pattern which makes it difficult for authorities to track them, such as in Uzbekistan’s cotton-producing industry during harvest time. Recently, the Non-government Organisations (NGOs) have highlighted the use of Syrian child refugees as labourers in Turkey’s garment industry, which shows refugees and migrants are more unprotected in these environments.


The above paints a clear picture as to why the global fashion supply chains are able to employ children illegally without any charges since they are very meticulous in leaving no traces. It does not help the fact that most of these children, if not all, come from low-income or financially unstable families so they have no choice but to work for any salary, in any working conditions. Therefore, it is safe to say that the higher levels of the industry can easily exploit their misery and take advantage of their situations, covering up with statements such as “it is better than nothing” and “at least we give them a job, so they should be grateful”. These children are paid lower than the minimum wage, forced to work for the whole day and night in unacceptable health & safety conditions.


For us to understand what exactly pushes children into child labour, we need to understand where they come from. Child labour arises from poverty and directly reinforces intergenerational poverty – what is otherwise known as the “vicious cycle” of poverty. Their parents are often unable to provide them adequate basic necessities, including food and education, so they are relied upon to bring money for the family. Although wages are below the living standard, children continue working in underpaying factories because they think it is the only way to support themselves and their families. This is the clever trap; the industry can keep production costs and wages low, and generate high revenue.


“End child labour in all its forms by 2025.”


This is the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7. Many countries and organisations are now taking steps to eradicate this problem and are urging the companies to ensure child-labour free production. The greatest challenge is that many well-known fashion brands and companies do not have full control over their supply chains, thus making illegal work practices possible (including sweatshops, trafficking and servitude). Even when companies have strict guidelines set for suppliers, work often gets sub-contracted to other factories that may employ child labourers, which neither the company nor the buyer knows about. A report in 2015 showed that 75% of 219 surveyed brands had no idea where their fabrics and inputs were sourced. Given the complex nature of the garment supply chain, it may be difficult for the companies to directly interfere with the production and its supply chain. However, not all hope is lost. Two NGOs are working to make the SDG vision of eradicating child labour a reality: The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) in the US, and Action Against Child Exploitation (ACE) in Japan. Future collaborations of fashion companies with similar organisations can be expected to at least reduce the intensity of this matter, through thorough investigations and greater transparency within the industry.


Moreover, consumers also have a hand in achieving this goal. The first step is to raise awareness. Far too few customers know about the child labourers who took part in producing the clothes they buy – tools such as the media and government support are crucial in order to bring this widespread issue to citizens’ attention. Secondly, there are many emerging apps such as GoodWeave, a non-profit member of the CLL, that issue labels to help consumers buy products that are child-labour free. If the consumers start to become more conscious of their purchase habits and boycott companies that are guilty of child labour, this may influence companies to make their supply chains more ethical in hope of regaining profit. When consumers make it clear that they want products to be produced without child labour and slavery, companies will work harder to achieve that goal, hopefully.

– Nashat Zaman

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