The use of children in Asian textile factories to feed the western consumer market has come under renewed scrutiny since last month's exposé of Indian children working in brutal conditions to make clothing for Gap. Indeed India has some work to do: an estimated 100 million child laborers help to fuel the economy, which - though burgeoning - is leaving many of its poor behind.
Yet, in our willingness to expose and debate factory abuse, we have been unwittingly overlooking conditions at the earlier stages of the supply chain. How often have we considered these first stages in the clothing process - the production and harvesting of cotton in the fields - and the army of labor needed to supply Asia's and Europe's thousands of factories with the fiber for subsequent manufacturing? Long before cotton is processed into textile, hundreds of thousands of children are being subjected to arduous, hazardous work in the fields where cottonseeds are produced and plants grown.
Agriculture, which is accountable, incredibly, for some 170 million child laborers, is classed by the International Labor Organization as one of the three most dangerous sectors in the world in which to work. In almost every continent - across swathes of Asia, extending into Europe, and in pockets of Latin America and Africa - children, many of them under 10, are out of school in all-weather conditions, exposed to dangerous pesticides and other health risks. Because agriculture tends to be less regulated than other industries, child laborers have little access to legal mechanisms.
These children and their daily realities are far from sight for most of us, but we have a responsibility to know about them. And let's not be under any illusion, there are many people who are informed, including many of the companies who supply us with our cotton and clothing and often, governments.
recently shed light on state-sponsored child labor in Uzbek cotton fields. As
British children board school buses to learn, in countries like Uzbekistan they
Uzbekistan can be singled out for its use of forced labor, but the problem is hardly negligible in a number of other major cotton-producing and exporting countries like China, Pakistan and India. Bad enough that children are being exploited and abused, but our culpability in the practice compounds it: many of these countries export clothing and textiles to the EU, with the UK among the EU's largest importers.
The argument is put forth that children working helps to alleviate poverty in some of the world's least developed countries - a better alternative to going hungry. Undeniably, poverty feeds into the complex web of circumstances that lead children to the cotton fields. Children can be required to support struggling families; parents with few employment opportunities can't afford to send children to school.
The reality is, however, that many of the more powerful actors in the supply
chain, including governments, manufacturers, cottonseed companies, retailers
and consumers, are unfairly profiting from the exploitation of vulnerable
families and children. The cotton fiber and seed industries are worth billions
of dollars, with farmers receiving low prices for their product, which is then
sold on the commercial market for several times higher. High-street brands earn
extraordinary annual profits, with some exceeding £293m. Often, UK consumers
Whatever the financial circumstances, children who are obliged to work are, at the very least, entitled to fair, safe and decent working and living conditions, and protection from abuse. We would never conceive of conditions where our own children are required to work all year round, away from home, and at risk of physical, psychological and sexual harm. So why do we tolerate it for children in the rest of the world?
By purchasing cotton clothing that fails to carry a guarantee of no-child-labor, we are part of the problem, and our demand for cheap clothing is among the strongest forces driving it.
Companies have a responsibility to know how the products that reap profits for them are being made. Consumers, equally, should know where the product they are buying and wearing comes from, so they can make more informed choices. We need to consider that if a product cost pennies, someone down the line is paying for it - through forced or child labor, pesticide poisoning or other physical abuse.
Companies can no longer shirk responsibility, or hide behind excuses like the "opacity" of the supply chain. It is entirely possible to track the origin of cotton. If actors in the supply chain do not know about the abuses at the earliest stages of the production of the goods they profit from, it is because they don't want to find out.
As consumers, our purchasing power can be worth more than our voting. Labels identifying where our clothing was made aren't enough: manufacturers and retailers need to develop a labeling system that identifies the source of the crop - given that cotton, from seed to shirt, passes through many hands - and guarantees the absence of child labor (or other abuses) from all stages of the supply chain.
In the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy, we need to apply our leverage, and make a commitment not to overlook children's basic rights, no matter where in the world.