The clothes you wear may be traced back to child labor. It’s a far more common problem than many of us realize. Children work across the clothing industry supply chain, from cotton fields to mills to garment factories.
There are wide reports of child labor in the cotton sector. Up to 99 percent of the world’s cotton farmers are in developing countries, with nearly two-thirds in India and China, according to a report by World Vision Australia. The children working in these cotton fields “receive little, if any pay,” the organization found. For example, children working on a cottonseed farm in Gujarat, India, receives less than 75 cents a day. They may work up to 12 hours a day in “extreme temperatures.” Reports of child labor in Uzbekistan, India, China and Egypt are also found “on a disturbingly large scale,” according to World Vision.
Child labor in India’s cotton sector is particularlly prevalent, Anindit Roy Chowdhury, program manager of the C&A Foundation, told TriplePundit.
A 2015 report, titled Cotton’s Forgotten Children, shines a light on just how widespread child labor is in India’s cotton fields. Almost half a million Indian children, with the majority being girls belonging to Dalit (low caste) and Adivasi (tribal) families, work on cottonseed farms. Children under 14 years old account for almost 25 percent of the total workforce on cottonseed farms in India. In the Indian state of Gujarat, which has the largest cottonseed production in India, children account for almost 55 percent of all children employed in the cotton sector.
Child labor is common in India overall. It is not only in the cotton sector. “It is everywhere,” Chowdhury told us. It is so acceptable that children who work in cotton fields will not complain. “They don’t even realize the kind of exploitation they are experiencing,” he said.
A number of factors contribute to child labor in India. One is that it is “socialized and therefore accepted,” Chowdhury explained. Poverty and illiteracy are two other factors, according to UNICEF India. When parents are trapped in dire poverty, their children are more likely to work in the garment sector and cotton fields. Or as UNICEF India put it, “Poverty and a lack of livelihood options lead to a child’s ‘need’ to contribute to the family income.”
“In the Western context, a lot of people look at child labor and feel awful about it. In our country — where child labor is common, especially among the poor and marginalized — we kind of accept it as a given,” Chowdhury said. “So, even people who otherwise condemn child labor, when they see child labor in action, because of the context that these individuals come from, there is an automatic acceptance that this is their reality and this will probably always be there.”
Many of the children who work in India’s cotton fields do so on their own families’ farms. As Chowdhury explained: “It’s not as if these children are coming from elsewhere always. More often than not, these are children whose parents own these cotton fields.” Many small and medium cotton field holders just can’t afford to hire labor, so their families work in the fields. And some children migrate from their villages with their parents to work in the fields. They are taken out of school. “Families are most often involved,” he said.
A big reason why child labor is so prevalent in the cotton sector in India and other countries is that there are advantages in using children to pick cotton. “Children are of a particular height. It’s easier for them to pluck the cotton because they don’t have to bend,” Chowdhury explained. “They are of the same height as the cotton plants. An older person who is far taller would have to bend to actually do the plucking.”
How can child labor in the clothing sector be reduced?
Child labor persists “on such a large scale,” according to the 2015 report on the Indian cotton sector, because of the “limited coverage and insufficient impact of the present interventions.” Some non-governmental organizations such as the C&A Foundation have programs and models to help combat the problem of child labor, but they need to be scaled up.
Chowdhury believes NGOs can “create models, but they have to be implemented and scaled up on a larger level by the government.” And the government needs to “play a proactive role,” he added.
What about companies and consumers? Can they play a role in combating child labor? Companies can improve their supply chains by having policies in place to both prevent and manage child labor.
H&M is a good example. The company states on its website that it takes a “clear stand against all use of child labor and it is a minimum requirement for all factories producing for H&M.” The company continuously monitors compliance with its requirements in the factories that makes the clothes it sells. One thing H&M does to ensure compliance is work with local doctors who help auditors judge how old a worker is if they think he or she looks “particularly young.” The first time H&M finds a child employed by one of its suppliers, it works with the supplier to rectify the problem. The second time it finds a child employed by the same company, H&M stops working with the supplier.
Consumers can also play a role in ending child labor in the clothing industry. “One thing which I believe can have a strong impact is consumers questioning where their clothing comes from,” Chowdhury said.
People need to consider both where and how the clothing they buy was made. If consumers stop buying products from companies that are known to use child labor, then those companies will work to end child labor in their supply chains. Most consumers simply do not realize that their clothing purchases may sponsor child labor, but once they realize, they can use their purchasing power to bring about change.
Image credit: Flickr/International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), India