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This article is written by Shyna Narula pursuing Diploma in Business Laws for In-House Counsels from LawSikho.

Introduction

“There is no reason, there is no excuse, child labour is child abuse.”-Anonymous

Throughout history, child labour has been practised globally. Child labour refers to the exploitation of children through any form of work that deprives them of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and is also mentally, physically, socially and morally harmful. Not all work that children do is considered child labour. Those work that does not hamper the mental and physical growth of a child and also does not deprive a child of his/ her school education do not constitute child labour. 

There are about 160 million children in the world who are at work instead of schools. Almost all the countries globally have laws protecting children from child labour. International Labour Organisation (ILO) has also set up international laws to prevent child labour to which most of the countries have signed and ratified. In spite of the existence of international law and domestic laws in almost every country, there still exists child labour in most countries. This article mainly focuses on child labour in the garment industry and steps that should be taken in order to prevent child labour in the garment supply chain.

International conventions on child labour

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990, which was subsequently ratified by 194 countries in total as of 2017. Article 32 of the convention addressed child labour, as ‘Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is most likely to be hazardous in nature or shall interfere in a child’s education, or is harmful to a child’s health or physical, mental, moral, spiritual or social development.’

UNCRC outlines the basic entitlements and freedoms that are applicable to all children all over the world without discrimination. It further acknowledges the primary role of parents and family of the child for their care and protection, as well as the obligation of the state to help the families to carry out these duties. The UNCRC consists of 41 Articles in total along with the right to life. The Convention also includes four core principles that should be carrying any action concerning children, whether taken by governments, communities, parents or any private sector. These four core principles are: 

  1. Best interests of a child 
  2. Non-discrimination 
  3. Child participation 
  4. Survival and development

The primary normative in the area of labour practices are defined by the International Labour Organisation, which sets international labour standards by adopting conventions that the signing and/or ratifying countries have to implement in their legislation. After implementation of the same, the countries are bound to implement the same in their legislation. Eight conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have been qualified as ‘fundamental’ in nature. These conventions in particular are binding upon every country that is a member of the ILO, regardless of their ratification.

Child labour in the garment industry

The fashion/ garment industries have changed immensely over the past few decades. These industries look forward to introducing more and more trends each year at a considerably lower cost. There are new arrivals in stores every few weeks. In order to offer or sell clothes at a bargain price and to also respond to the rapid growth in the changing of fashion trends, clothing brands and retailers are continuously looking for cheaper production locations that are capable of accommodating complex orders and deliver good quality goods at a short notice. In a globalised world where the factories are in a “race to the bottom” in order to provide cheap fashion fast, children are most often involved in that supply chain. For their unscrupulous businesses, they constitute a cheap, compliant and easily exploited labour force.

An average garment company spreads their orders to hundreds of suppliers, long- term relations with a particular supplier is rarely seen. The increased pressure of the work to be done within a short span of time along with low prices has a huge impact on the whole supply chain. The so-called “fast fashion” model has a great deteriorating effect on working conditions in the supply chain. These are the major reasons for unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, forced labour, lower wages and most importantly child labour. All these factors are rampant throughout the garment supply chain.

All stages of the supply chain that is, for example, from the production of cotton seed, cotton harvesting and yarn spinning mills and all the phases of the cut-make-trim stage, involves the children working resulting in child labour. Child labour practices are also practised in the field works like, in large formal factories, small informal factories, subcontracted workshops or in their own homes. Child labour practises are comparatively less in fieldwork but still existent.

Young children are employed not only in the garment sector but other sectors too like textile, construction etc. These children work in high-tech spinning mills, power and handloom industries, garment factories etc. They often perform diverse and arduous tasks like that trimming and cutting threads, folding and moving garments, dyeing, sewing buttons and many more activities. Several countries such as India, Uzbekistan, China, Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand and Pakistan are particularly notorious for child labour in the garment industry.

The main reason why many companies choose to employ children is only that they are gullible and slip very easily under their radar. According to Sofie Ovaa of Stop Child Labour, one of the reasons for the children being so vulnerable is because “there is no supervision or social control mechanisms, no unions that can help them to bargain for better working conditions. They are very low-skilled workers without a voice, hence easy targets.”

Asia and the Pacific region solely account for about 41% of global child labour according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), with the production countries in Asia being India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and Myanmar among the ones which are ranked at an ‘extreme risk’ in accordance to that of child labour.

The 2017 Ethical Fashion Report, clearly states that many companies are currently aware of who their suppliers are at the final stage of manufacturing in their clothing line. “For most of the companies, it is at the last stage of the supply chain that they have the strongest relationship. Thanks to the strong visibility, the worst forms of exploitation, forced labour, and child labour are now far less prevalent at this stage of the supply chain. However, deeper into the supply chain, where visibility is far less, the risks remain substantial.”

Steps to prevent child labour in garment supply chain

Child labour is a difficult thing to tackle in the supply chain of the fashion industry as it is highly complex in nature. It is observed that usually, the big brands are unaware of child labour being practised in their company’s production level. Almost all the companies have established ethical guidelines with respect to their work, but it is mostly overlooked with the growing demand for their goods (i.e., garments in this scenario). Such high demand leads to great pressure on the manufacturers to produce mass amounts of products at a lesser cost. Such pressure on the manufacturers leads to them subcontracting their work to other factories which are mostly involved in practising child labour.

The main question that arises is what steps can we take to change this unfortunate situation. Following are the ways in which we can together avoid the practice of child labour in the supply chain of garment industries:

  • Government

Government should make sure that all the establishments are registered and incorporate the rules and regulations in accordance with the laws of the country. Labour inspections should be carried out by the government on a regular basis, in close intervals. The government should recruit more labour inspectors across the country and make sure they are true to their work and inspect the industries for malpractices if any. The government should also look into the socio-economic problems like poverty, unemployment, illiteracy etc. They can also come up with schemes that can positively help poor families, and children to complete their education. Such steps if taken by the government can help in eradicating the problems of child labour.

  • Non-government organisations

NGOs can play a key role in raising awareness amongst society and informing them about the misuse of children and denying them their fundamental rights of education, shelter and/or food. They can conduct awareness campaigns in areas where child labour is practised, they can also raise money to provide to needy families and children for their education. NGOs hold the power to help society grow together by eradicating such practices.

  • Brands and agents

All the brands (including high-end brands) should make sure that they promote an ethical code of conduct in the supply chain of their garment industry. They should formulate an inspection team that can make sure that no unethical practices are conducted like that of child labour. It is the responsibility of the brands to ensure that no such practices are followed by their contractor or even sub-contractors.  While abolishing child labour at all stages of their supply chain, brands and retailers should have a great focus on gaining a full understanding of their supply chains.

It is important that companies should not just limit their efforts in making sure that the children are removed from their workplace. In fact, they can also facilitate their transition to formal full-time education. Those child workers might also need health care, temporary financial support or other services that a company can help with, within their capacity. 

  • Other measures

Other measures can include the recommendations given by the civil society groups and activists in order to curb child labour in the garment supply chain, they are as follows:

  1. Stronger implementation of the existing laws in order to prosecute the fraudulent labour recruiters and employers of child labour.
  2. Implement a stronger outreach programme for communities in order to shift their ingrained cultural mindsets away from the practice of child labour.
  3. Work in closer collaboration with the stakeholders of a company in the garment supply chain, including contractors and the suppliers, NGOs, Trade Unions and the child workers as well. 

Every garment industry while flourishing in their business should not avoid the root problems of the supply chain and should do their due diligence to make sure that no child is employed for any work in their supply chain. Brands, government, NGOs and other agencies should be on the lookout for the possibility of child labour in the industries and should come together in order to eradicate any form of child labour.

Conclusion

The very first step in preventing child labour is to acknowledge that it is a widespread problem worldwide. When factories and brands become fully transparent about such issues, it is then only when we can make strides towards improving the lives of these children, calling attention to their fundamental dignity as human beings, and also protecting their ability to realise their dreams.

Child labour of any form is in contravention of human rights and even the fundamentals rights of a child. No child should be deprived of their rights and their childhood. Every child should have a right to education, food, shelter and the basic norms of living. As it is rightly said, “Education is a child’s birthright, so against child labour, we must fight”. Every child deserves to celebrate his/ her childhood, so let’s join our hands together on this ‘World Day Against Child Labour’ and take a pledge to eradicate this issue and give these children an unrestrained life at this tender age that they deserve.

References


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