The Issues: Child Labour

Despite many efforts to eradicate child labour globally, there are still an estimated 152 million children trapped in child labour globally, including those still found in the fashion and textile industry. Child labour is most likely to be found in the early, often agricultural, stages of a supply chain. Children as young as seven years old have been found picking seed cotton, carrying heavy loads and exposed to cotton dust in ginning and spinning mills, or exposed to dangerous chemicals and machinery in garment, jewellery, accessory and footwear factories.

  • Child labour is found in 51 countries in at least one part of the cotton, garment and jewellery supply chains, according to the US Department of Labor, including in the main countries supplying the fashion industry: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Turkey and Uzbekistan. 
  • In Uzbekistan, an estimated 1 million adults and children were forced to work in the fields during the 2016 cotton harvest.
  • One study in India reports that children under the age of 14 account for a quarter of the total workforce on Indian cottonseed farms.

What is child labour?

Not all work by children is child labour. It is of course acceptable for children to undertake some tasks appropriate to their age, as long as it does not undermine their health, education or wellbeing. The International Labour Organization Convention No. 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour sets the framework for laws at local level. Child labour can be seen broadly in three categories:

  • work undertaken below the minimum legal age for employment (typically 15 years old for most countries, with some exceptions);
  • hazardous work – defined by each country or industry, but includes exposure to harmful chemicals or dangerous machinery;
  • unconditional worst forms of child labour – including trafficking and slavery, commercial sexual exploitation or employment in illicit activities.

In many cases children are forced to work because parents cannot afford to maintain their families. Child labour is inextricably linked to poverty, lack of employment and/or low wages for adults, as well as lack of free access to education up to 15 years of age.

Identifying child labour

Child labour can be difficult to detect using traditional factory or farming audits, especially as many young people lack documentation such as birth certificates to prove their age, or may have fake ID. While the first-tier production sites may have good child protection policies, child labour may still be found in subcontracted or outsourced facilities, or further upstream with raw materials. Once detected, it is critical that children themselves are protected, so action to remediate does not result in an even worse situation for the child or their family. Equally importantly, action to prevent further occurrences is critical to any child labour strategy.

Take Action

Fashion brands and retailers can support progress by:

  • actively mapping the existence and potential risk of child labour occurring in their own supply chains;
  • working with suppliers and production sites (and relevant children’s rights organisations) to ensure good quality policies and training on child labour are in place;
  • ensuring their purchasing practices reflect the need for adequate adult wages and responsible employment practices;
  • supporting policies and programmes to provide a transition into decent education for any children found in child labour.

Farming bodies, factories and mills can support progress by:

  • having clear policies and training programmes in place to ensure all workers are aware of the laws and what these stipulate;
  • ensuring active monitoring of the implementation of their own policies;
  • collaborating in local or sector-wide initiatives with other children’s rights or labour organisations to build a culture of child wellbeing where they operate.

To find out more:

Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Guidance on Child Labour

Guardian/UNICEF online resource on child labour in fashion

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Pinterest
Notices from our PRO members