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Leon Kaye headshot

Early Warning Systems Reveal Child Labor in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry

By Leon Kaye

Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, apparel companies have scrambled to ensure their supply chains can become more responsible and free of labor and human rights abuses. While some progress has arguably been made, much work needs to be done if the fashion industry can genuinely say it is concerned about human rights.

This is particularly true when it comes to child labor. Two mobile telephone systems, Laborlink and LaborVoices, address the problem. The systems allow workers to anonymously report signs of human trafficking, delayed wages and child labor. Garment workers simply call and reply to simple questions by pressing 1 for “yes” and 2 for “no” on a mobile device.

Based on data recently released by LaborVoices, “1” has been pressed frequently enough to warn several of the world’s leading apparel brands that the clothes they source in Bangladesh have ties to child labor.

LaborVoices’ data, which is collected by a platform called Symphony, covers worker reports from January to June of this year. So far, the information LaborVoice gathered includes about 85 factories in the system’s database, or approximately 3 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports. That data is now the foundation of a heat map that pinpoints which factories score moderate, elevated or even high risks for use of child labor. Most of the factories are located around the country’s capital and largest garment-producing region, Dhaka, as well as Chittagong, a city of 2.5 million in Bangladesh’s southeast.

LaborVoices' data reveals that over 5,200 workers dialed into the system to date, reporting at least 500 incidents of child labor. The brands that could be affected by such abuses in their supply chains include Walmart, Target, C&A, Zara, Columbia, Nike, Adidas, H&M, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton and Tesco.

The advantages of these systems is that they provide real-time information that is much faster than third-party audits, which the garment industry touts as a way to monitor their operations in Bangladesh. This data also helps Bangladesh garment workers locate factories that have a better reputation for working conditions and prompt payment in contrast to their current employers. Furthermore, LaborVoices and Laborlink provide valuable data for apparel companies as they seek to allay their stakeholders’ fears about clothes coming from factories with dubious human rights records.

More data will be released in the next few weeks, one of LaborVoices' team members (who wished to remain unnamed) told TriplePundit in an email. A larger sample size should help workers, and companies, identify which factories are more respectful of workers and which ones should be avoided. LaborVoices' goal is to cover 10 percent of Bangladesh’s garment factories by 2016, with updated data released to the public every six months.

LaborVoices recently launched a similar tool in Turkey, which has emerged as another global center for garment manufacturing as its garment exports approach $20 billion annually. Bangladesh’s garment sector is worth at least $24 billion, and according to the Economist, the country seeks to quadruple that value over the next two decades. Those figures alone should serve notice to the world’s clothing brands that they need to pay close attention to systems such as LaborVoices or Laborlink if they want to ensure their supply chains indeed have the integrity many of them are quick to claim.

It is true that attitudes toward child labor vary by country, as the controversy over soccer balls made in Pakistan two decades ago revealed. But LaborVoices told TriplePundit that all of these reports of child labor occurred in Bangladeshi factories, not in homes. Considering the billions of dollars fashion brands score by sourcing from a country where the average worker does not even earn $100 a month, this is not just a wake-up call for companies to mitigate their risks. They also need to invest in training, social enterprise programs and education programs for these workers, who are the drivers behind an industry that is still rapidly growing and is immensely profitable.

Image credit: Claudio Montesano Casillas for Fashion Revolution

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye