Child Labour

Published: 01st July 2007
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Child labour is a complicated issue, on one hand no one wants to see underage children making toys, but we are told if they do not work then their family risks even greater poverty. Journalist Arthur Neslen tells us that despite various campaigns and censure, without basic respect for workers rights child labour will continue.

Children work. They always have. But the 250 million 5-14 year olds that UNICEF estimates are economically active around the world are not predominantly newspaper boys and girls. They are labourers, often working in conditions that cripple their bodies, stunt their growth and shorten their lives - and their employers can be found selling the fruits of their labour on any Western high street.

Demand here, effects lives there, was the way a Panorama investigation into the chainstores NIKE and THE GAP put it, but the exploitation of child labour is fundamentally about supply. When lobbyists protest about 'unfair' regulations, red tape and barriers to trade, they are often attacking the only protection children have from working 16 hour days in sweatshops.

Of course, no corporation will admit this.

NIKE formally proclaims a zero tolerance policy towards child labour and has even signed up to a United Nations pledge to outlaw the practice. But the October 2000 Panorama documentary 'No Sweat?' found children as young as 12 working for June Textiles, a Cambodian factory subcontracted to make Nike clothing. Living in rat infested shanty towns, the children had seen neither their parents or a school for months. Working 16 hours a day on their feet, the youngsters would get one short break and after seven non-stop days, receive $10 for their pains.

The Nike code of conduct says that adults should work and children should be free to study and play. But as Fiona King of Save the Children pointed out, 'It's impossible for most multinationals to guarantee child labour-free goods because of the complexity of their supply chains. It's a sales gimmick.'

Indeed, June Textiles is also subcontracted to make clothing for THE GAP. As was the Mandarin International garment manufacturing plant in El Salvador, until in June 1995 the National Labour Committee found more than 100 workers at the site aged between 14 and 17. Although this complied with El Salvadorean - and The Gap's - minimum requirements, the children were forced to work longer hours than allowed by law. The company was eventually compelled to accept independent monitoring of its code of conduct at Mandarin. Elsewhere, like Nike, the Gap uses its own monitors who, as the BBC researchers discovered, are often less than thorough.

Independent monitoring though, is no panacea. Last September in Shenzhen, southern China, child labourers were locked in toilets and dormitories when independent monitors visited, according to the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee. The plant, which manufactured Snoopy and Winnie the Pooh toys for the burger giant McDONALDS, had been accused in a South China Morning Post report of employing children as young as 14. The children were reportedly paid the equivalent of $3 for a 16 hour day.

Of course, when children work such long hours, is it not just their health that suffers. The National Labour Committee presented evidence to Congressional hearings in April 1996 that 13-year olds producing Kathie-Lee Gifford label clothing for WAL-MART in Honduras were sometimes forced to work through the night, and not permitted to attend night school. Wal-Mart had previously been named in a 1993 NBC Dateline story about Bangladeshi children who produced garments for their stores. But the fall-out from that case raised other questions about ethical disinvestment.

Repercussions Wal-mart was put under pressure to cancel its contracts with Bangladeshi manufacturers and legislation was proposed to close the US market to suspect Bangladeshi suppliers. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) responded by forcing the dismissal of thousands of children from factories. But no safety net was provided and the ensuing poverty forced many children into begging, prostitution, the domestic servant trade and ironically, work for underground subcontractors in the garment industry under worse conditions than before.

It took a year of negotiations for an agreement to be signed by UNICEF, the ILO and the Asian-American Free Labour Institute asking the BGMEA to stop firing underage workers until a school system and other measures were in place.

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