The Propagation Of Child Labor In The Ready-made Garment Industry As A Result Of The Increase In Demand For Fast Fashion

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According to The International Labor Organization (ILO), an estimated 170 million children are engaged in child labor around the world (Moulds, n.d). Although the situation is improving over the years with a 30% decline in child labor between 2000 and 2012, the century old battle against child labor does not seem to be ending soon with the rise of fast fashion. Fast fashion, a term used to describe inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to latest trends, is currently at its pinnacle due to the growth of social media marketing and ease of e-commerce. In fact, the fast fashion industry has generated approximately $585 million in revenue in 2018 and is expected to grow over the next decade with the growth of rising economies in Asia-Pacific. In order to meet the demand for affordable clothing, many large brands as well as independent indie brands seek out cheap labor and outsource their manufacturing processes in developing nations.

In the case of Bangladesh, one of the world’s biggest producers of Ready-Made Garment (RMG), poverty is the main reason children work in fashion mass production chains. Out of 150 children being interviewed, 78% were unwillingly forced into child labor due to poverty (Siddiqua, 2015). These children often work under unsustainable and exploitative conditions that compromises their health resulting often in death or a colossal medical bill (Moulds, n.d.). In particular in the cotton production industry, children are preferably hired because their small hands are suitable for picking cotton without damaging the crop. With the rise of fast fashion, ignorant consumers are indirectly supporting and exacerbating the use of child labor in low cost garment production.

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Two organizations World Vision International and Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) currently aim to alleviate this issue through various initiatives. World Vision International is an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization that works with children, parents, and their communities to tackle the causes of poverty and injustice. They raise funds through charity to fund their projects around the world helping underprivileged communities, such as ones found in Bangladesh. FWF on the other hand, is a European non-profit organization (NGO) working to improve workplace conditions in the garment and textile industry. It is governed by labor unions, NGOs, and business companies who help FWF ensure that its member companies adhere to the FWF Code of Labor practices in their supply chains around the world including Bangladesh. FWF currently has about 130 brands pledging against the use of child labor.

Whilst there are many organizations working against the use of child labor, the factors contributing to this issue are much more complex and deeply rooted. However, providing education and strengthening policies within communities, the government as well as employers seem to be the best course of action in protecting children against exploitation.

Education for Children of Primary School Age and Adolescents

World Vision aims to implement the Bangladesh Child Protection Project which seeks to reduce child labor and associated violence (World Vision International, 2016). To achieve this, the organization will create child -friendly learning and recreation centers for young children. The program will aid selected families by providing vocational training and addressing health concerns and child protection issues. The core of the project depends on educating children and their immediate families in order to empower them with the tools to protect themselves and improve their economic situation which often impedes them from enrolling in school. Based on research, the likelihood of children leading better lives increases with the level of education both them and their parents receive (Kumar, Saqib, 2017). Especially with the rapid growth and urbanization of Bangladesh, being literate will likely increase the chances of families getting better jobs and escaping the poverty cycle (ECOSOC,2016). The organization also aims to help families and communities understand better the dangers of child labor in order to build safer environments for children. Local and government authorized child protection committees will be mobilized to supervise child labor (World Vision International, 2016). This will help communities learn to report child labor and other abuses as well as direct child survivors to social services available.

One concern would be the fact that due to the low income of most families, families are compelled to send their children to work for short term gains instead of choosing education (Siddiqua, 2015). The project attempts to solve this problem by providing monetary support to families who send their children to the learning centres, thereby encouraging children continually receive education and avoid the risk of child labor. That being said, such a method requires a lot of funding which World Vision does not have. They have a limited amount of funding which is required for building the learning centres, as well as other logistical needs. The project aims to implement the project within four years with a few indicators in mind to measure the project’s success. The longevity and sustainability of the project is not guaranteed as after the project ends, the community might revert to their old ways since there are no more incentives for them.

An improvement to this challenge could be to create a collaborative system with not only the local communities but with existing NGOs working on similar projects or area such that a consistent pressure is exerted on local authorities and organizations for them to uphold the humanitarian rights and standards against child labor (Seidman,2008). Whilst a monitoring scheme according to Seidman is not the perfect solution, some form of monitoring will still help promote accountability and responsibility of communities involved. Besides that, World Vision should also place emphasis on educating employers about the rights of children. Out of the 25 employers interviewed, only 8 of them are vaguely aware of the existence of the rights for children (Siddiqua, 2015). Even if they were aware of its existence, most of them chose to neglect the rights because the consequences are not severe enough for them to abide by the law. World Vision has to actively engage with the government and strengthen policies in order to overcome this challenge. Social and environmental criteria in supplier evaluation needs to be broaden to encompass a broader set of protective laws for laborers. New criteria, as mentioned by Winter and Lasch, such as housing conditions and home worker conditions needs to be explored in order to increase the quality of working conditions of laborers (Winter & Lasch, 2016).

Promoting Social Accountability Amongst Businesses Directly Involved In Supply Chains

As mentioned in the introduction, one of the main factors contributing to the use of child labor in the RMG industry of Bangladesh is the demand for low cost clothing from fast fashion. In order to counteract this, FWF ensures that the brands under its foundation implements the FWF Code of Labor Practices in their supply chain. Also known as The Fair Wear Code, eight labor standards based on the conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are followed. The eight standards are: freedom in employment; no discrimination in employment; no exploitation of child labor; freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; payment of a living wage; no excessive working hours; safe and healthy working conditions; and finally legally-binding employment relationship. FWF works on the basis that the brand selling clothes is also responsible for both the environmental impact of the product and the labor conditions in which the products are made in. FWF ensures that the accredited brands adhere to their code through a multi-level verification process of factory audits, complaints process and verification of company management systems. Transparency in the workplace, the company, as well as the organization is emphasized to encourage full accountability from brands and their supply chains. FWF’s initiative has proven to be effective over the years with a membership growth of nearly 700% between 2003 and 2012 (Fair Wear Foundation, n.d).

Despite the achievements FWF have accomplished, one concern however, is the alarming rate at which clothes are being manufactured and thrown as well as the sheer number of indie brands who do not adhere to the Codes of Labor Practices in order to reduce costs. These brands are unlikely to seek an alternative way of production unless the consequences are severe. One improvement FWF can make is broadening their scope of social advocacy to beyond fashion brands. In other words, educating consumers about their purchases, reminding them that their actions can contribute indirectly to the exacerbation of child labor in developing countries. As seen in the research made by Seidman, boycotting a brand can be a useful method to enforce social accountability and responsibility on fashion brands (Seidman, 2008). In addition, FWF can advocate the benefits of sustainable fashion as a way to encourage indie brands to seek out better alternatives when choosing their manufacturing suppliers. For example, based on a case study made on the role of corporate sustainability in a large Scandinavian clothing and apparel company (SCAC), the concept of sustainability is seen as a deterrent against the negative impacts that may arise from unsustainable practices rather than a means of marketing or “adding value through attracting customers” (Lueg, Pedersen, M. M., & Clemmensen, S. N. ,2015).

With the efforts of organizations like World Vision International in education and Fair Wear Foundation in strengthening social advocacy and policies, there will likely be continued improvement in the situation. However, there are still many hurdles to overcome and improvements to be made in order to take a further step in reducing modern child slavery. As Alexis Herman once said, “If we can’t begin to agree on fundamentals, such as the elimination of the most abusive forms of child labor, then we really are not ready to march forward into the future.” Tackling the issue of child labor is necessary for not only fashion brands but also the general public. We need to take responsibility for the way we are consuming fast fashion in order to encourage brands to seek better alternatives in the production of clothing (Caleca, 2014). Education is crucial in raising awareness of such an issue and much of the world can learn from Scandinavian countries who are already actively adopting the use of sustainable fabric and ethical labor. Together with the efforts of governments, NGOs, and the general public alike, we can work towards a future without child slavery.


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