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Jan Lee headshot

Addressing Forced Labor in the Garment Industry

Words by Jan Lee

Human rights advocates are gaining some ground in the battle against child labor. A report by the International Labor Organization revealed that the number of children forced to work for a living declined by a third between 2000 and 2013. That sizable drop -- from 246 million to 168 million globally -- is in part due to a swell of public pressure against indentured child labor, particularly in the garment industry.

Okay, that's the good news.

The bad news is that the social impacts of child labor, and forced labor in general, are still felt on every continent on the planet. In fact, while the ILO lauded the gains against child labor in its 2013 report, the organization admitted it was unlikely that the world would be able to meet the established goal of eliminating the worst kind of child labor by 2016.

And it hasn't. In fact, according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Labor report, countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where cotton is now grown as a major revenue-producing crop, have made minimal progress in eradicating child labor from cotton fields. Similarly, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, spurred by media reports and pressure from advocacy groups, have made moderate progress in eradicating child labor from their garment factories and agricultural fields, but they still have a long way to meet ILO standards and public expectations.

Child labor in the garment industry

"Child labor is one of the greatest barriers holding back progress towards the international development goal of universal primary education," Gordon Brown wrote in his review of child labor and educational opportunities in developing nations. Brown serves as the U.N. special envoy for global education and served as the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010.

According to Brown, many of the strides that are being made today are the offshoot of Britain's landmark efforts to address child labor during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, where poorer children were forced to eke out a living in coal mines, garment industries and other factories, and were deprived of access to education and social advancement. The radical changes that Britain and European countries eventually implemented to stop the exploitation of children became a catalyst to revolutionary labor laws in other countries, including the United States. It also helped to launch the acceptance of international labor standards set and ratified by nations through membership in the ILO.

Today, Brown noted, the existence of child labor is "[largely] consigned to the history books of the rich world," but it still lives on in many developing nations where economic conditions and cultural expectations still present sizable challenges to ensuring that children's education, health and safety are considered rights, not privileges.

And those social impacts are huge. According to a working paper by the ILO and the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), indentured labor practices put kids to numerous risks, including toxic exposure to pesticides, ink, dyes and other chemicals used in the garment industry. It heightens their risk not only to injury, but also to chronic illness and even cancer -- all of which can have a devastating effect on their potential to earn a living.

"There is pretty wide consensus that children have a right to education and development, and many forms of work can severely harm children’s development, physically, mentally and psychologically," said Matt Fischer-Daily. Fischer-Daily is the coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, an advocacy organization focused on eradicating labor abuses from the global supply chain. He also works for the International Labor Rights Forum, which advocates for labor rights.

Many countries, including Cambodia, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have ratified ILO conventions designed to protect children from abusive labor and to afford citizens the right to legal protections. But that hasn't eradicated child labor within all borders, Fischer-Daly said.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: Forced labor in spite of child labor

These days, with all of the media discussions surrounding labor abuses in the garment supply chain, many of us are automatically primed to look at the country of origin before purchasing a piece of clothing. And we may gain a sense of comfort knowing that our favorite brand or company has recently vowed zero-tolerance to purchasing from sellers that support forced or child labor in their supply chains.  But most are unaware of the complex web that both the companies that buy the cotton and the companies or governments that run the farms and labor have learned to navigate in order to do business at the highest volume possible.

Last year, after the Swedish company Ikea announced that it had developed a "zero-tolerance" policy for child labor in its supply chain, the Swedish news agency TT decided to take it up on its statement and conduct an investigation. TT writer Ola Westerberg said they traced the sourcing materials for duvet covers that were regularly marketed by Ikea around the world and back to Turkmekistan, a country known for forced adult and child labor.

When asked about the issue, Ikea stated that it now sources only from "more sustainable farming." It also said that it had "enhanced controls and third-party testing in the cotton fields and in production. Today we have one supplier in the country."

There was only one problem with that statement, Fischer-Daly said in an interview with TT: Turkmenistan's government-run cotton industry doesn't permit independent third-party testing and validation in its supply chain. At all.

"All cotton farmers in Turkmenistan are forced to deliver annual production quotas under threat of penalty, including the loss of land,” Fischer-Daly told TT when the news agency asked the Cotton Campaign for verification. “No cotton farm is exempt from the state-order system, which uses coercion instead of incentives to secure the national production plan.”

In Turkmenistan, like Uzbekistan, the cotton industry is operated through a complex system that assures compliance through forced labor quotas, Fischer-Daly told TriplePundit. "This is a country in which there is no independent trade unions; there is no community organizations of any sort, period, in the country." There also is no independent media structure. "One of the very few independent journalists who was working for the last few years was literally taken off the street and put into prison last July."

About Ikea's troubles, he added: "For a company like Ikea to adequately conduct what is known as business human rights due diligence, to know and mitigate the risks of human rights impacts in their supply chain, they need to be able to ensure that the farms and factories supplying the company are complying with minimum labor standards. And to know that, they need to be able to hear from the workers in those fields and those factories." This is a verification process that would be very difficult in an industry that has no national competitors and no tolerance for third-party scrutiny, Fischer-Daly said. And the risks are considerable for any private citizen who aids such efforts, either through resisting labor assignments or speaking with human rights organizations, he added.

But that's not to say that the Turk and Uzbek governments don't have an ear to the ground when it comes to consumer sentiment about human rights abuses -- particularly involving kids.

"Up until 2012, the Uzbek government mobilized school children to do a lot of the cotton picking," Fischer-Daly explained. "Under some substantial international pressure, in the last few years the government [has] reduced the amount of child labor [in its fields]. But it didn’t change anything about the forced labor system itself. It just increased the number of adults it sends out to do the field work."

Those adults aren't necessarily the country's unemployed, and they aren't seasonal workers trained for the job, Fischer-Daly explained. They are school teachers, nurses, business owners and, until recently, large numbers of school children -- average individuals sent into the field to do their "patriotic duty" to pick cotton at the direction of their superiors and at the penalty of losing their jobs if they don't comply.

The cotton industry in the 21st century: Who owns responsibility for scrutiny?

Stories like those that have emerged from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan have helped galvanize awareness of the hidden human rights abuses in garment-industry supply chains in recent years. They also highlight the need for vigilance by companies and governments in confirming that labor standards are enforced at all points of their international trade relations.

Organizations like the Cotton Campaign, which is driven by a growing membership of advocacy organizations, businesses and concerned members from across the globe, have helped influence, shape and nurture the grown of international policies that protect human rights. But ultimately, it is the consumer that is the greatest stakeholder in the garment industry, and the loudest voice when it comes to successfully transforming attitudes toward forced labor in its supply chain.

Image credit: Rakesh Rocky

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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