Are your favourite clothing brands using child labour?

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Are you thinking…..'There's no way that any of my clothes are made by children … it's 2022!!!'.  Well you'd be wrong; there's probably at least one brand in your wardrobe that employs children within their supply chain!  Even if that brand doesn't know it! Let me help you, paint a picture of what the current child labour situation looks like, share with you a  selection of brands that are potentially still involved in child labour and help you understand why child labour being used within fashion supply chain.

Child labour conditions in 2022

There are currently around 160 million children under the age of 18 doing some kind of work, roughly half of this number are in hazardous work environments, obviously not all in the fashion supply chain, but still child labour in any industry is not good.  Statistics show that around 8.4 million more children are working today than in 2018.   Sadly, the majority of the 160 million children under the age of 18 are living in low to middle-income countries and have had to take work when their families face financial challenges or uncertainty.  I'm not saying it's against the law to employ an under 18, I had my first job at the age of 13, but child labour is about depriving children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity: its about exceeding a minimum number of working hours; it’s about the mental, physical, social and moral dangers and harm that it can bring to a child and that it interferes with their schooling!

Unfortunately, for many children in these low to middle-income countries, this is the only way of life because of poverty; particularly in places like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, China and Pakistan to name a few.   It's a vicious circle, all these countries create a competitive advantage; they offer low-skilled factory labour, making them all the cheapest in the world to produce clothing, this competitive advantage is then further strengthened by 'patchy' human rights regulations and little enforcement.   I'm not here to put a dampener to your day, but I do want to make you aware that some of your favourite brands are currently still potentially using these factories as part of their supply chain and that this is down to the demands of consumer needs in Europe, the US and beyond. 

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So, What brands are using child labour?

H&M

We've all seen and heard on the news about H&M being caught in scandals over major humanitarian issues, during the years; even though they show their image to be an eco-friendly brand! But, H&M is still very much part of the unsustainable fast fashion industry, promoting disposable fashion and the constant rotation of new trends. 

With regards to child labour laws, H&M aren't necessarily going against child labour laws in terms of underage workers, but they are contracting manufacturers that are; let's say 'bending the rules' of child labour, particularly when it comes to the maximum work hours and pay. One of their main suppliers is currently one the worst performing countries in the child labour index; Southeast Asia, in particular Myanmar, with an estimated 1.13 million children, aged 5 through to 17 working as labourer's. 

H&M's response to this is that they audit their factories both announced and unannounced.  However, with the amount of factories under their supply chain, the question really is how many times a year are these audits conducted? Unfortunately I have only been able to find information regarding these audits from 2010 where H&M conducted an average of 1.39 audits per factory in South Asia and a report from 2020, that states that their closest relationship is within their two tier process; Manufacturing of clothing and the manufacturing of fabrics, but they are not necessarily monitoring the raw material stage.  'We also work with raw material suppliers — even if we don’t know the location of every farm, we can influence the selection of raw materials in line with our social and environmental standards'

In a nutshell H&M are still using sweatshop-like working environments to make their products, even if they are trying to make progress, they are still failing to meet their goals and are still contracting factories in countries that are known to use child labour! Just to be able to offer cheap affordable fashion, that makes a large profit!

ZARA

Zara have also been accused of unfair trade practices in their company over the years. Unlike other brands Zara, owns several of their own factories within Spain, Portugal and Turkey, but they still contract 24% of their supply chain outside of these factories to other low to middle in-come countries, which are well-known for child labour.  These named factories being used by Zara, may not use child labour, but they are sub-contracting out Zara's production to other factories, which do not adhere to Zara's policies regarding child labour. 

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A case in 2011 were Zara went under investigation, in Brazil; with regards to a contractor that sub-contracted to another factory, leaving Zara with 52 infractions of labour and employment laws in Brazil.  

Zara did reacted to this by instigated a traceability system, which they use today; were their suppliers are now 'obliged' to declare all movements of Zara production when subcontracting work.  to ensure that Zara's suppliers are adhering to their trackability system there are yearly audits across all of Zara's supply chain, but once a year only gives a snap shoot of what is actually happening.  Surely the real answer is/was to cancel the contracts with factories that have/are using child labour?  It's simple right? Unfortunately, no, firstly people will loose their jobs - which they can't afford happen. Secondary, Zara want to have a competitive edge in the fast fashion industry and make a profit!

GAP

Gap, has openly admitted in previous years to the use of child labour within their contracted factories across the world and if you look up 'does Gap uses child labour?' it will say that they no longer do, but the reason why isn't what you think… It's because they go through a third party. “We purchase private label and non-private label merchandise from over 1,000 vendors. Our vendors have factories in about 40 countries.” 

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China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Turkey, Egypt, El Salvador, Lesotho and Guatemala, are just few of the countries that use child labour within the supply chain. If you look closely at Gaps supplier information you will find that all these countries are on their supply list.  You'll also see that Gap do monitor their factories with visits, but this is only at factories level, they aren't monitoring the raw material, particularly the raw cotton industry  - the cotton industry being  one of the most common places you'll find child labour, and to make things worst there are children as young as 7 years old working in this industry!

Although Gap, promises their customers they are doing everything in their power to ensure that their child labour policy is adhered to within their supply chain, there are loop holes within that promise!

PRIMARK

Primark have taken some positive steps towards improving their name and their ethical practices, but like most other brands they don't own their factories and continue to outsource their suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and China.   Although Primark's code of conduct states 'child labour is prohibited' the question is are they actually monitoring this?

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What practices have they in place to ensure that their contractors are actually following this code of conduct? Primark state that they audit at least once a year! But if these factories are within the low to middle income countries what happens for the rest of the 364 days of the year? 

There is still a limited transparency within their business model which means,  that they don't control their own supply chain and therefore are able to ignore the responsibilities of any misconduct to human rights. Ultimately, the fact is that Primark's business model is based on creating huge amounts of short lived, poorly-made fast fashion, which can only be achieved by low wages, long hours and the use of unethical practices within their supply chain! 

Is it the brands fault?

We all know that fast fashion is about getting things done quickly and cheaply, and going to third world countries, who offer this way of making clothing is the option that most fast fashion brands take.    Having said this most Fashion brands have a code of conduct, a strict policy of force, which includes child labour for their contracted factories.  Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges in tackling child labour in the fashion industry is the supply chain and the ability to monitor it.  Even when the brands have policies and procedures in place for their contracted suppliers, most often the work will be sub-contracted to other factories that the brands may not know about!   But the only reason that these factories are sub-contracting is because of the need to meet tight deadlines and unanticipated orders from the brands!   The reason that the brands are asking for these deadlines and unanticipated orders are due to the demands from the brands consumers!

With fast fashion consumer demands continually growing, it seems impossible for children not to get stuck in the low-paying industry. Even though wages are below the living standard, children continue working for underpaying factories because they believe it is the only way to support themselves and their families. As a result of this strange and harmful circular trap, the industry can keep production costs low and offer wages even lower. 

Key takeaways

  1. To keep prices low, fast fashion companies tend to use outsourced and often underpaid labour in factories located overseas.
  2. Brands may present an acceptable amount of information about their policies, yet continue to act in an unethical manner.
  3. Many brands are failing to take steps to ensure their policies are put into practice.
  4. Just because brands say they don't use child labour in their tier one factories, that doesn’t mean that these factories don't get their supplies from others that do. 
  5. Brands aren't willing to cancel contracts with child labour known factories, because it will impact on their retail prices and the ability to produce new trends every two weeks. 

I'm not saying that it's the sole responsibility of the brands to ensure the end to child labour within the fashion industry, but I am saying that they do need to take some responsibility in the actions of their contractors, after all they are paying these suppliers for a service that adheres to their own believes! 

There is a pledge to end child labour by 2025, if you are interested in learning more about how this is going to be achieve and participate in this pledge check out this link.

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