“Play is the work of the child.”
In 2005 Chip Wilson, the founder of luxury yoga label Lululemon, claimed that having children work in factories was “okay”. Gaining employment, he suggested, would help impoverished children to break free from cycles of poverty and exploitation.
But is it really that simple?
After all, it does seem very convenient that the founder of a fashion brand would claim that employing children is motivated purely by his concern for them.
The fact is that 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. Sadly they constitute a cheap, compliant and easily exploited labour force.
Our friends at Undress Runway we have asked Australian children what they think when they see images of kids the same age working in factories. Is This Real? is an innocent and powerful reminder to ask ourselves the tough questions: what is childhood, and what rights should a child be entitled to?
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What is child labour?
According to the International Labour Organisation, the term is defined as:
“work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”
Around 260 million children are employed around the world, of whom an estimated 170 million are engaged in labour.
Child labour is illegal in most countries, in accordance with The UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Article 32 of the Convention stipulates that Governments should protect children from work that is dangerous or that might harm their health or education.
This does not mean that children should not be allowed to do chores around the house or on the family farm, for instance. It does mean, however, that;
Why is child labour a problem?
According to Chip Wilson’s argument, if impoverished children are being given a means of supporting themselves and their families, that can only be a good thing, right?
Well, not necessarily.
The reason many companies will choose to employ children is precisely because they slip so easily under the radar. According to Sofie Ovaa, global campaign coordinator 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.”
Because of their vulnerability, many companies will actually 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, it means that families are actually worse off. If adults are paid a living wage, their children can have the opportunity to get an education, thus giving them more opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.
The case for child labour (and why it doesn’t hold up)
Agatha Christie once wrote, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood.”
Although many people would agree on the importance of a happy childhood, there is no consensus on how best to help a child attain that right. Certainly, when people from wealthy countries try to tell impoverished families in developing countries (where child labour most commonly occurs) that they cannot determine how to best look after their families, it can seem quite paternalistic.
This is further complicated by the fact that there are certainly many positive arguments 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 useful 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 being 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.
It is important to remember that child employment is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it allows a child to grow and learn new skills that will benefit them later in life. However, when children are engaged in labour that has no concern for their well-being and seeks only to exploit, something clearly has to change.
Focus on 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 with the production of cotton.
This is particularly evident in Uzbekistan, where government workers force children to spend the summer months picking cotton, and even threaten them with expulsion from school if they do not comply. In cotton mills in Southern India, poor girls are often enticed to work in circumstances that are virtually bonded labour where factory managers may even have hormones put in their food to stop them menstruating, as women are seen to be less productive during their menstrual period.
“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 93 per cent of Australian brands do not know where their cotton is sourced, this raises concerns regarding the extent to which the average Australian consumer is unknowingly supporting the exploitative measures that exist in many parts of the supply chain.
What to 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 that are known to use child labour, then 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 are actually improving. The number of children in child labour has declined by one-third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children. More than half of them (85 million) are in hazardous work (down from 171 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 being somewhat overwhelming, these stats tell an encouraging story.There are several accreditations, such as Fair Trade and Child Labor Free working 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 so that they can begin to break the cycle of poverty. As consumers, we can take responsibility for our own 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 to companies and their stakeholders.
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