The Never-Ending Scandal
In 1995, news broke that clothes sold by The Gap were being made by children working under terrible conditions, labouring in dangerous conditions for almost no pay.
The Gap promised reform. Came up with new oversight systems. Mended their ways.
Then it happened again , in 2000. Gap and Nike implemented new policies, swore they’d do better, promised transparency.
It happened again, in 2007 . Even now, there are still concerns that The Gap and other major companies—American and European, large and small, in clothing, textiles, and footwear—have supply chains riddled with illegal, unethical labour practices, including work done by young children.
In fact, child labour is probably the single most common concern when it comes to the fashion industry, although concerns about sustainability are a close second. The US Department of Labor says that more than 50 countries are involved in child labour. It’s a huge, widespread problem, and it seems easy to fix: make it illegal. Punish companies using child labour, demand that they close the factories, and petition the International Labor Organization (ILO) and World Trade Organization (WTO) to enforce their rules.
But things aren’t that simple. Us and Them
It’s easy to fall into an oversimplified trap when we talk about child labour. The mistake goes like this: putting children to work is wrong, especially if the work is hard or dangerous. Everyone knows that, right? So, in places where child labour is still common, the people in power must be malicious, or neglectful, or inhumane. The factory owners must not like kids; their governments must not care. They’re not like us, and we have to save the children.
But notice that word still. Still common. Child labour only became illegal in the United States in 1938, and is still legal on farms. In France it was 2001.
The countries where child labor is most common now—India, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Cambodia—don’t have fundamentally different values when it comes to kids. The issue isn’t what people value or care about. The issue is money. Specifically, it’s the economic conditions and opportunities that exist for the poorest citizens.
In other words, children work because they and their families have no better options. However, powerful companies are utilising child labour beacasue of how cheap it is and profiteering. All in all, companies are taking advantage of the vulnerable economic and social system to gain larger profits.
And that tells us how to get child labour out of our fashion and textile supply chains. We don’t need more international agreements about the law, we need economic aid, education, and information about our manufacturers and suppliers. At the end of the day, banning child labour doesn’t mean that children will start going to school, because they’ll be living in the same poverty they were before, with the same bad options they had before—and now, their best chance to work their way to a better life may just have been removed.
No. Child labour is a harmful social reality, but it is one born of economic desperation. To eliminate it, you have to eliminate the conditions that make it necessary.
With that in mind, let’s look at Cambodia, and the power of education. Child Labour in Cambodia
First, let’s get a sense of the context. Cambodia’s democracy is not fully stable, and the nation struggles with corruption, violence, and censorship. Its economy is built on tourism, agriculture, and textiles, with garments and textiles accounting for 80% of the country’s exports in 2018. The garment sector employs three quarters of a million workers, earning a minimum wage that was just raised to 192 USD per month, or a little over a dollar per hour. Most Cambodians are low-income by the standards of developed nations, and many are poor. Most finish primary school, for example, but only about a quarter complete secondary school. Fewer than one percent go to college or university.
In that environment, it’s no surprise that many children end up working. Things were bad in the 1990’s, with the ILO finding that 24% of children between 10 and 14 were
working in 1998. Another report from one year earlier found more than 400,000 kids working in factories. The US threatened sanctions; the UN passed a resolution; the WTO threatened not to accept the country.
And it helped! By the late 2010s, a joint ILO and World Bank project found only 4 instances of garment factories engaging in child labour in 2017, compared to 16 cases in 2016 and 65 in 2014. Human Rights Watch found a similar pattern in 2015—some factories still had children working, but they were in the minority.
At the same time, investment in education is increasing. UNESCO recommends that countries spend 20% of their budgets in education; in 2014, Cambodia was doing just 10%, but was up to 14% by 2018 and is still rising. Wages for teachers are more than 400% what they were a decade ago.
And that correlation—more money for education, and fewer children working—isn’t a coincidence. Cambodia ratified an ILO convention banning child labour in 2006, but six years later progress was summed up like this: “minimal advancement .” The reasons for that kind of problem are well-known: fashion and textiles are especially conducive to child labour, their supply chains are incredibly complex, almost totally un-traceable, and, in Cambodia, almost all garment factories are owned by China (where pressure to keep children out of the workforce is less intense). So making the practice illegal hasn’t helped: legal pressure doesn’t give anyone a way out, or a better option.
Instead, what has helped most has been education and transparency. Education gives children access to new opportunities, and means that safer, higher-paying jobs will be available to them. That helps break the generational cycle of poverty. It’s something that fashion can help with, too, working alongside NGOs and governments: H&M has donated tens of millions, through UNICEF, to educate more than a hundred thousand children. Luxury brands like France’s LVMH have built schools, and Louis Vuitton, Chopard, and Bulgari have all found ways to tie marketing or product initiatives to educational donations. Those kinds of efforts need to continue, with fashion’s global leaders helping to lift children out of poverty—and out of their own supply chains.
That brings us to the other problem, which is transparency. Garment and textile supply chains are famously hard to trace, partly thanks to short turnaround times and the subcontracting that they encourage. One factory can’t handle a huge order, so another factory—one that hasn’t been checked by UN inspectors—takes on the rest of the job.
This is where non-governmental organizations really shine. Groups like the Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Wear, Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), and the
ILO’s Better Work Program have made a huge difference in Cambodia. Fair Wear publishes the results of its audits, increasing accountability, and Better Work coordinates with local governments and leads trainings in factories.
The Road Ahead
Some of those programs have already expired. Others are ending soon. The economic collapse caused by Covid-19 hit Cambodia especially hard, tanking the tourism industry and closing more than one in ten of its garment factories.
Now is the moment to start making changes. Corporations need to push for supply-chain transparency, and make their results public. We should be able to read where our clothes are made right on their websites. Governments should target aid to children, using positive incentives rather than negative ones to help lift children and their families out of poverty. And the garment industry should lead by example, returning profits to the communities that are providing the labour they need.
These are real possibilities. There are few goals as universal as ending child labour, and with a little courage and a lot of work, we can look forward to more ethical fashion in the years ahead.