It's 2021 and still happening around the world: child labour. Let's reflect on some of the harsh realities engaging the fashion world to this day. And surprisingly enough - there are also some nuances to be made. Hot takes, direct quotes, definitions, the effect of the pandemic and an outlook for the future. Let's dive in.
Child labour is work performed by children that is detrimental to their physical and mental development, deprives them of their childhood, potential and dignity.1 Child labour is illegal in most countries but continues to be widespread in some of the poorest parts of the world.
Of course, not all work performed by children falls under this definition of child labour. If the work doesn't prevent the child from attending school, force them to leave school prematurely or affect their physical and mental development, it may be even beneficial for the child as they can develop certain skills and gain useful work experience, say some.1
Whether you'd agree with that or not - the hard thruth is that especially when poorer families rely on their children for helping to put food on the table, this kind of work may very well be the most decent option for them currently out there.
So, defining work performed by children as child labour depends on the age of the child, the type of work they do, their working hours and work conditions.
That said: child labour is a controversial and complex issue that won't simply disappear by making it illegal - and the consequences might even make it worse.
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Up to 170 million children are at work below the minimum age requirement across the world according to the International Labour Organisation. That's more than 1 in 10 children across the globe. Although the situation has been improving over the last decades, many of these child labourers are active within the fast fashion supply chain: largely children in poor countries with families struggling to put food on the table, producing garments for consumers in Europe or in the US for a tiny cost.
Children work at all stages of the production chain in the fashion industry: from producing cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, to the different phases of putting garments together in factories across Bangladesh. Especially within fast fashion, there is even an incentive from the employers to hire children as often the work is incredibly low skilled and suited to smaller bodies. In their eyes for instance within the cotton industry - smaller hands picking the cotton results in less damage to the crop.
As with many other complex issues that evoke plenty of emotions in us, it is quite difficult to look at child labour as a black-and-white issue, even though it might be one. Here's why.
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Of course, everyone wishes for children to experience 'normal childhood' (though this is a culturally sensitive and subjective concept) and wants children to get an education so generational poverty is no longer reinforced. But, you might ask yourself:
In an ideal world, banning child labour would result in a situation where children aren't forced to work, can experience 'normal childhood' and get an education. Unfortunately, if child labour is banned, many children and their families will be put in a dangerous position:
Naturally, we all desperately want that ideal world to come into existence. One where children wouldn't have to work and can get an education while their families aren't left without food or housing. However, while researching for this article, we've learned that banning child labour altogether may not be the best solution just yet.
But — there's lots to be said about wether we should or should not accept the employment of children in the meantime.
Most people are fundamentally against child labour. Here are some often heard statements:
"Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation in the labour market. Their lack of understanding of the consequences of their choices and working decisions, and their limited social and economic skills puts them in an asymmetric power position in front of employers who may exploit them. All contracts and relations in which a child might be exploited due to its weak agency and asymmetric power should be banned." 3
"Covid has brought with it a spate of disturbing reports of schoolchildren reverting to child labour, increases in child marriage, trafficking, domestic violence and a sharpening digital divide in education. Children the world over are falling through the cracks, with governments ignoring child rights violations under the guise of having more urgent crises to tackle." 4 More on that in a bit.
But — what do these children actually have to say themselves?
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© Photograph by Henk Boon, 1997 for the Landelijke India Werkgroep.
Reading the following quotes from teenagers from working children’s organisations form Asia, Central and South America, and West Africa, may however surprise you. In an older, but well-known and still often mentioned report on the Child Labour Conference, held in Amsterdam in 1997, teenaged delegates from these organisations, had their own say in the matter.
These teenagers stated that in order to truly help child labourers, they need not abolition, but regulation. They spoke out against exploitation, ill-treatment, abuse and social exclusion, but also made it clear there should not be a ban on all work for children. Because according to them, the real problem is that many families still are very poor. As long as that hasn’t changed, children should be allowed to work. While long term solutions to poverty were preferable, the immediate problem for working children is bad working conditions.5
Lakshmi Basrur was a delegate from a working children’s union in Karnataka, India who urged everyone to also ask the opinion of the children themselves. She explained: “It is no use to offer us quality education if you will not allow us to work. Our families cannot survive if we do not work. The day should come when children will not need to work. Until then, they should be able to have dignified work and good quality but appropriate education, as well as time for leisure.” 5
On to a more recent source. Have a listen to this The Guardian podcast where we hear from two former child workers and Save the Children, a government department that protects the rights of children and chief of child protection for Unicef in Bolivia. In this podcast they're discussing why 850,000 children work in Bolivia, and whether the numbers can be vindicated by the country’s unique cultural context.
It becomes obvious that a distinction should be made: there are children 'who choose to work for their own survival', and there are those that are 'forced to work or are seriously exploited'. According to them, someone with a western point of view might not understand the world view that people (including children) on the other side of the world have. The Code of Children of Bolivia has to deal with those two realities: the cultural reality and the economic reality. While they all want to measure with the same measuring stick as the United Nations or the ILO or Unicef, this might not always be possible.6
So, while the struggle to end child labour is necessary, getting there often requires taking different routes. But how to escape that vicious circle of poverty to decline child labour?
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Complex supply chains
As with all other injustices in the (fast) fashion industry, due its complex, layered supply chain, it's extremely hard to pinpoint where the abuse, exploitation and child labour actually is happening. As you may already know, even when brands have thorough guidelines in place for their suppliers, work often gets sub-contracted to other factories that the buyer may not even know about.
Perhaps a smaller fashion brand may not even be able to do this on its own. Because even if there is no working child spotted during audits in a factory, this does not automatically mean that there is no child labour in the supply chain as a whole. What is happening at the spinning mills, dyers and in cotton farming? Child labour is often a problem deeper in the supply chain.8
So, what can they do? For fashion brands and other companies, following these 18 checkpoints will be a step in the right direction of eliminating and preventing child labour.
A decrease in child labour, but then: COVID-19
It's not all bad news though. The overall situation had slowly been improving over the years. Child labour actually decreased by 94 million since 2000, but — that gain is now at risk due to the pandemic.7
The progress that has been made, might be reversed, ILO and Unicef warn. They say that millions of children are at risk of being pushed into child labour as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This would mean a rise in child labour for the first time since 20 years.
Structural changes are needed
The complexity of child labour, especially combined with the unique character of the coronacrisis, make it obvious that there is no single solution or any simple, quick fix for that matter. We need structural changes, tackling the root causes. Those take time. Past experience does indicate that integrating child labour concerns across broader policies for education, social protection, justice, labour markets, and international human and labour rights makes a critical difference.
ILO states: "Children’s rights and protection from exploitation are closely linked to other fundamental principles and rights at work. These include freedom of association and collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination in employment and occupation, and freedom from forced labour. Efforts to eliminate all forms of child labour and realize other fundamental labour rights must go hand in hand.".7
From 2021 to 2025: a lot to be done
2021 will mark the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Organisations such as ILO and Unicef have joined forces to end child labour in all its forms by 2025. Whether they succeed within this timeframe, remains to be seen. But it is so so important giant entities such as these two collaborate. It gives hope.
It is incredibly important to be mindful of the ethics and fair working conditions behind your clothes. Certifications like the Fair Wear Foundation label or the World Fair Trade Organisation continue to hold brands accountable for maintaining high levels of safety and fairness in their factories.
Most of the sellers at Shop Like You Give a Damn also make sure to frequently visit their shop floors in-person to see with their own eyes that labour standards are being upheld and age requirements are being enforced. While our business started out of veganism, for us ethics surrounds the entire process of fashion and we stand by our message of vegan, fair and ethical fashion on every step of a garment’s journey.
So: educate yourself, immerse yourself in important resources starting with this article, that will help you understand what child labour is, why and how it’s happening. And consume accordingly: shop like you give a damn. Buy nothing more than you need. And if you do want to buy something new, go for a vegan, fair and sustainable purchase.
Do it via our online department store for instance, or contact retail stores, manufacturers, and importers yourself. Hold yourself and them accountable, and do some research about the origins of their business and sourcing. Buy honest, look for the certifications that matter and keep digging.
Thank you for taking the time to read and learn with us on our journey to finding and uniting credible brands that like us, seek to make a difference in this world.
1. 'What is child labour.' International Labour Organization.
2. 'Is child labor always a bad thing?' D. Small, 4 April 2019.
3. 'What (if anything) is wrong with child labour?' N. Brando, 9 March 2020.
4. 'Child labour is exploitation: there’s no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work'. The Guardian, 16 December 2020.
5. 'Let us work!.' New Internationalist, 5 July 1997.
6. 'Is child labour always wrong? The view from Bolivia – podcast transcript' - or listen to the original podcast. The Guardian, 24 February 2017.
7. 'COVID-19 and child labour: a time of crisis, a time to act'. ILO and UNICEF, 2020.
8. 'Five lessons on combating child labour in the garment and textile industry'. Stop Child Labour, 2020.