When we see light glittering off of sequins, sparkles and other embellishments, it belies the darkness of how many such garments are produced. Because the machinery used to do this type of work is too costly for many manufacturers in the developing world, most of this so-called finishing work is done by hand and by children. The idea is that their tiny fingers are particularly good at it.
The UN defines child labour 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”
Finishing work is often detailed and time consuming. In many cases it is done in informal garment factories or is contracted out to individual families in their homes. In countries like Bangladesh it is even regulated and controlled industries routinely make use of child labour. In the unregulated informal market the problem is even graver.
Many children are forced to abandon school in order to help support their families. While this calls out to us from a humanistic point of view, after all we want these children to enjoy their childhood and be out playing with their friends not worrying about putting the next meal on the table – the real problem is even graver. The minute these kids are denied an education the opportunities available for them in the future becomes much more limited. Often damning them to a life of subsistence work and continuing the cycle of poverty for another generation. Often damning them to a life of subsistence work and continuing the cycle of poverty for another generation.
Some children are even removed from their parents or villages and become bonded to employers. This is simply a modern form of slavery where the worker is indebted to the factory owner and are forced to work long hours for no pay in order to repay the ‘debt’. Of course, the owner often charges the child for food and accommodations at a higher rate than the worker is paid meaning that the debt can never be paid off and the child will remain perpetually enslaved.
Girls and women from rural villages are especially vulnerable to this type of enslavement. Often they are recruited from the village by someone from the city who promises them steady employment and income if they travel to the city. Faced with few opportunities at home this seems like a dream come true. Of course, from the outside we find their belief naïve, but as with many of these issues people in desperate situations make desperate choices.
We discussed one such scheme in an earlier post called the Sumangali Scheme. The basic premise of the scheme is that young girls are recruited from rural villages to work in garment factories with the promise that their pay will be reserved for them and paid out as a dowry upon their marriage. A practice that is illegal but still widely practiced in many areas of the world.
Related article: How the “Sumangali Scheme” is exploiting vulnerable girls.
Children are often recruited preferentially into factories because they are seen as compliant and easy to manage. In particular, children who have been removed from their parents are often afraid to question the authority of the factory owners and are unaware of where they can turn to for help or protection.
Additionally, very harsh discipline methods are often used to ensure compliance, including the verbal, emotional, physical and even sexual abuse of the children. Factories often set quotas which are impossibly high and the children often end up working 19-20 hour workdays, 7 days/week in an attempt to meet them. Most of these workers rarely if ever leave the factory and are forced to sleep, eat and bathe there.
Inside the factory the children are exposed to squalid conditions and a huge number of damaging chemicals including pesticides, formaldehyde, harsh acids and toxic dyes. Many neurological symptoms, skin diseases and traumatic stress disorders are associated with these conditions. Cotton dust is also impossible to avoid as it clogs the air inside the factories, resulting in lung and stomach problems. The factories are hot, often poorly lit and without adequate facilities for sanitation and running water. Often workers are forced to go long hours without access to water, causing liver and kidney failure. Seeing people faint due to heat, exhaustion or a variety of other ailments is commonplace.
Heavy industrial machinery is also used in the factories; this machinery is often operated by children with little to no supervision, training or safety measures. If a child becomes injured or ill at work they are often forced to leave the factory and are forced to beg for a living. Unfortunately, seeing children begging in the streets in Dhaka who have been maimed or injured at work is common place.
Unfortunately child labour is not rare in the world today. According to the UN and the ILO (International Labour Organization):
- On average, one child in every seven can be classified as a child labourer.
- In 2008, there were approximately 215 million child labourers, aged 5-17, in the world. Among them, 115 million children were in hazardous work (a term which is often used as a proxy for the worst forms of child labour).
- Only one in five child labourers are in paid employment. The overwhelming majority are unpaid family workers.
- 170 million children are engaged in child labour, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond
- 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.
- Children working in the cotton industry are at particular risk due to the exposure to pesticides and other chemicals used in the fields.
In fact if we zero in on the fashion industry exclusively we find child labour widely used at every step of the supply chain.
Cotton is by far the most widely used and cultivated plant in the world when it comes to garment production. According to the highly regarded COMO report
“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.”
Moving on to the next stage of production, the spinning mills it is estimated that over 60% of the people employed in the mills were under the age of 18 when they started. That is not just rampant it accounts for the majority of workers.
According to the SOMO report “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).”
There is light at the end of the tunnel, and hopefully it is more than a glittering sequin. Governments and NGO’s on the ground in places like Bangaldesh are actively searching out and trying to free children from illegal factories.
This video is difficult to watch as it shows children being rescued from slavery.
The UN estimates that there has been almost a 30% reduction in the percentage of children in industrial labour and more awareness is leading to a reduction in the number of children working in formal environments. It is estimated that the number of children working in informal home arrangements has also showed a slight decline.
Consumers are the only group with the power to affect dramatic change in the fashion industry. By continually demanding access to products that do not contain child labour consumers force brands to investigate their supply chains and attempt to reduce or eliminate children working in the manufacture of the product.
Next time you are tempted to buy an embellished, sequined or embroidered piece of clothing from a fast fashion brand be sure to ask “Who’s little fingers made my clothes?”