Child Labour and Sweatshops – Who Made YOUR Shirt?
Types of Garments Made in Sweatshops
There are some types of clothing that are more likely to be produced in a sweatshop by child labor than others.
Athletic shoes and sneakers are more commonly made in a sweatshop, but all kinds of shoes are made by cheap, underage child labor.
Do you have a rug that was “hand-made” in Pakistan or other country? Many of us love pretty “oriental” rugs, but in Pakistan alone, three-quarters of those who weave these carpets are young girls under the age of fourteen.
Very young children in countries like India are forced to work long hours hand-sew sequins, embroidery, and other embellishments on clothing. Factory workers, often young girls, sit for hours at sewing machines making garments.
So many toys are made in China these days, and other toys are made in Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia. Toys from these countries are commonly made in sweatshops. The average pay is $.30 an hour (compared to $11 an hour for an American toy maker).
Child slaves were discovered in the world’s prime area for cocoa bean production: the Ivory Coast. Some of the workers were found to be paid, but the wages were so low that poverty was inescapable.
Tea plantations usually employ women who pick tea leaves and roll them by hand. Again, low wages and long, hot hours under the sun are often endured.
In addition to having to work long hours for very low pay, workers on banana plantations are exposed to agrichemicals like pesticides.
Imported coffee is huge business in America. But foreign coffee farmers are often paid so little that they end up in an inescapable cycle of debt and poverty.
This is why there is a movement for “fair trade” versions of these and other foods. Fair trade foods are those that are produced by workers who are paid a fair wage and work in safe conditions.
What Can Consumers Do?
It may seem, at first, that just refusing to buy items from companies whose garments are made in a sweatshop is the answer. But the problem is very complex and the answers equally so.
Boycotting companies that use sweatshops and child labour to manufacture their garments may seem like an obvious solution. And for your own ethical considerations, it makes sense on a personal level. But there are some problems with going the boycott route to child labor goods and companies.
For one thing, boycotts must be well-organized. If they are not, the already-suffering sweatshop workers may be forced out of work entirely when demand for their garments go down. The sweatshop will simply close, sending workers (many of them children) out onto the streets with no home and no work. Sometimes, as happened in Bangladesh in 1994, sweatshops close down and the children who were employed there are forced to find even more exploitative or dangerous work, such as prostitution or dangerous manual labor. In the incident in Bangladesh, the sweatshop employed some 50,000 children as garment workers, and awareness of the situation caused the sweatshop to close. The children were desperate to earn some kind of wage and turned to prostitution or other exploitative (sometimes illegal) work. As noted above, in many Third World cultures, it is accepted that everyone in the family has to work and families see the childhood years as a time for learning a useful trade.
If a boycott is organized, however, it can be effective. The key is to structure the boycott so that the company finds that it must change the conditions in its factories. Improving working conditions empowers workers, improves their wages and conditions, rather than simply closing the factory.
To help alleviate this problem, some organizations and human rights advocates require companies to provide education and a living wage to children who are found to be working in poor conditions. It’s important to make sure that employed children have somewhere to turn if their sweatshop shuts down.
-Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Ask retailers about their manufacturing policies and procedures. Work your way up the ladder until you can speak to the owners and managers of these stores. If they do assure you that their products do not come from sweatshops, ask them how they know that.
The lack of transparency on the part of clothing, toy, and food companies contributes to the existence of sweatshops. Companies need to be held accountable for how their products are made. Insist that they disclose these things in full. Remember, you have the law on your side.
-Choose Ethical Companies
As noted in this report, it can be very difficult to pin down the existence of sweatshops and child labor. Pinning those sweatshops to a particular company can get even more complicated. Companies can evade the issue by moving their production centers around and simply hiding information on child labor. But there are resources online that can help you choose companies that produce sweatshop-free items. You will often find that such companies are proud of their anti-sweatshop stance and will advertise themselves as such, making them easier to locate.
You can also look online and see what the various watch-dog groups have to say about particular companies. Find out if any action has been taken against the company, and what, if any, steps the company has taken to improve the situation for child labor.
-Buy Fair Trade
You can also consider buying only fair trade certified items, or as many as possible. You can apply this to your grocery as well as your clothes shopping.
While a union label is a good indication that the item is sweatshop-free, many items of apparel don’t have such a label. Check the label for the country of origin, and watch for terms like “hand-made” or “hand-sewn.”
Unfortunately, as long as there is industry there will probably be sweatshops and child labour. Children are easily exploited and are far less capable of organizing themselves to protest or demand better treatment. And these shops are easily moved from one location to the next, and even if one is discovered and shut down another one springs up and evades detection.
But we are learning and doing more about child labour and sweatshops. While exposing one sweatshop means that others will try even harder to remain secret, the exposure makes it harder and harder for sweatshops to exist without being found out. Consumers are learning, and disseminating information about the problem is crucial. Insistence from consumers that companies produce sweatshop-free apparel can go a long way in enacting change. After all, advocates for animal rights have succeeded in getting companies to label products “cruelty-free” in order to denote a lack of animal testing. Perhaps such informative labeling standards can be applied to children.
It’s important to take cultural and political differences into account, too, when considering the problem of child labour and sweatshops. There is no quick and easy fix that will enable countries with corrupt governments to change their ways.