Skip to page content
Bureau of International Labor Affairs
Bookmark and Share


Child Labor in the Apparel Sector

There are no reliable statistics on the rate of employment of children in any particular economic activity, including the garment sector. Therefore, most informa tion on child labor in the garment industry comes from eyewitness accounts, non -governmental organization (NGO) and academic studies, journalists, and ILO re ports.

The Department of Labor's 1994 international child labor study, By the Sweat and Toil of Children (Volume I): The Use of Child Labor in U.S. Manufactured and Mined Imports, catalogued existing information on child labor in the garment indus tries of Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, Morocco, the Philippines, Portugal and Thailand. While the report noted that more research was necessary to confirm the extent and working conditions of child workers, in some cases it stated that children were involved in the production of garments for export to the United States.

With the exception of Bangladesh, where children regularly worked in large -scale, formal factories, the report found that children were more likely to work in small subcontracting shops or homework situations. In some cases, children were found to work in locked shops, with armed guards preventing entrance and exit during work hours. Children worked on tasks such as sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, folding, moving and packing garments. In small shops and homesites in the Philippines, children were also found embroidering and smocking (making pleats). In some cases, children worked long hours sometimes six or seven days a week. Some children received less than the minimum wage and were not paid for overtime work.

Today, two years after our initial findings, children continue to work in the apparel sector. A 1996 ILO study states that "...there is no denying that child labor is still very much a reality" in the apparel sector, although it is "extremely difficult to give exact figures, particularly for the segment involved in world markets, because of the complex subcontracting arrangements in operation." 12 The same ILO study also notes positive developments that may have contributed to the shifting of some chil dren out of the garment sector: increased international concern about the conditions under which labor-intensive goods such as clothing are produced, and initiatives by some developing countries to eliminate child labor in order to improve the image of their industries.

Anecdotal information gathered during the preparation of this report also indicates that fewer children may be working on garment exports for the U.S. market at least in some countries in 1996 than in 1994. This conclusion, however, is based mainly on anecdotal evidence in the six countries where Department of Labor officials visited. More research is necessary to confirm that a downward trend in the use of child labor in garment production is a universal phenomenon. 13 This is no small task since a total of 168 countries export apparel to the U.S. market, many of them small suppliers. There are reports of child labor in some newer suppliers to the U.S. market.14

There are several reasons which might explain a potential downward trend in the use of child labor in garment-exporting countries.

First, any potential downward trend may be partly due to the widespread adoption in the last several years of U.S. company codes of conduct prohibiting child labor.

Second, public awareness of child labor and reports of its use in export industries, including the garment industry, may be a substantial contributing factor to a declining use of child labor. There has been a whirlwind of media accounts and public pressure concerning child labor during the past few years. Investigative jour nalists have broadcast or published numerous reports of working children, particu larly in developing countries, making products sold in the United States and other industrialized nations. In some cases, news reports have named the companies whose products were shown to be made by young workers.

For example, in 1993 an American television newsmagazine reported a story of young Bangladeshi children making garments sold at Wal-Mart stores. News accounts also reported that young girls were producing garments at an independent Bangladeshi contractor facility supplying Levi Strauss & Company. More recently, an NGO accused The Gap of selling clothing made in Salvadoran sweatshops that used young workers.15 In 1996, the same group charged that Honduran children pro duced clothing bearing the Kathie Lee Gifford label and sold in Wal-Mart stores. 16

Third, in some countries, such as the Philippines, increasing numbers of larger factories may be squeezing smaller subcontracting shops which are more likely to employ children out of work. Professor Rosario del Rosario, a child labor expert who recently concluded a survey on child labor in the Philippines' garment sector, told Department of Labor officials that although there is still some child labor used in subcontracting levels of the garment industry, the numbers of child workers has decreased since the late 1980s. She said that subcontractors who once employed children have reported that larger exporting factories have markedly decreased their orders for the garments that they had traditionally supplied. 17 While this is not necessarily the case everywhere, the Philippine experience illustrates that a decline in the use of subcontracting arrangements may cause a decline in the use of child labor. 18

A related development that may help explain a downward trend in the use of child labor in some circumstances is the strategic decision by some large U.S. import ers to prevent or restrict subcontracting by foreign suppliers and to consolidate their sourcing with a smaller number of larger factories.

Fourth, garment manufacturers may be responding to concerns that import ing countries could enact legislation banning the importation of products made by children. Such legislation has been introduced in recent U.S. Congresses.

There are also cases where children have been displaced from the garment sector, as business practices have reacted to market pressures to reduce the use of child labor. One of the most dramatic examples involves Bangladesh, where large numbers of children worked in garment factories as recently as 1994 (see Box I-1). International media attention and threats of boycotts and cancelled work orders led to the dismissal of thousands of child workers from the garment sector unfortu nately in this instance with no safety net in place for them.

In response to concerns for the dismissed child workers, a memorandum of understanding was negotiated between the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the ILO and Unicef with the active support of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Department of Labor to place the children in schools, and to offer their jobs to older family members.

Thus, it is possible that in the absence of government programs to assist children, the precipitous dismissal of child workers can endanger, rather than protect them.19 More research is needed so that governments, industry, international organi zations, and others concerned with the welfare of children are better equipped to design appropriate programs.20 It is clear, however, that local and national commit ments to universal and free education for children are immediate and positive steps which can and should be taken.

B O X I - 1

Bangladesh Case Study

In 1993, an American television newsmagazine "NBC Dateline" broadcast a story of young Bangladeshi children making garments sold at Wal-Mart stores. This put pressure on Wal-Mart to cancel its contracts with Bangladeshi manufacturers. Other companies informed their Bangladesh partners that the use of child labor was creating negative press and was bad for business. At the same time, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) learned of proposed legislation that could restrict the U.S. import of items made with child labor, poten tially closing the American market to Bangladeshi garments if children were found in the factories. Garment exports are the single largest export industry in Bangladesh with over 50 percent of garment exports going to the U.S. Obviously, should Bangladesh no longer be able to sell its garments to the U.S., its national economy would be seriously affected.

This pressure led to action. On July 4, 1994, the BGMEA announced that it would eliminate child labor in the garment industry by October 31, 1994. Thousands of children were reportedly dismissed from the factories as a result.

Some reports indicated the children removed from the garment factories were forced to resort to more dangerous and lesser paid work in the informal sector. Rumors circulated that many of the children ended up as street beggars, domestic servants, or were forced into prostitution. Other reports noted that the children were hired by underground subcontractors, working in hidden garment sweatshops under worse conditions than before. While there is no clear evidence describing what happened to the children, it is clear that the government of Bangladesh was not providing adequate schools or other programs for them.

Once it became apparent that there was no safety net for the dismissed children, representatives of the ILO, Unicef, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and officials of the U.S. Embassy, asked the BGMEA to cease firing underage work ers until a school system and other measures were in place. After a year of extended negotiations, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on July 4, 1995 between the BGMEA, the ILO and Unicef. The MOU provides that all child workers in the garment sector be removed from the factories and enrolled in schools. It forbids any new hiring of underage workers, as well as any retention of children once all MOU schools have opened. A monitoring and verification system devel oped by the ILO oversees compliance; and monitoring teams make unannounced visits to factories and schools, reporting violations to a steering committee for action. The MOU also states that the BGMEA will offer employment to qualified family mem bers of underage workers whose employment is terminated under the agreement and that former child workers will be offered reemployment once their schooling is com pleted.

A survey, conducted in the fall of 1995, determined the number and identity of child workers in BGMEA factories. The survey counted approximately 11,000 children a significantly lower number of children than thought to be in the factories a year earlier. As of September 1996, 130 MOU schools for former child workers have opened, serving nearly 2300 children. Clearly, progress has been slow. ILO moni toring teams making random, unannounced factory visits continue to encounter ob stacles from some producers. They also continue to find additional underage work ers that were either missed by the original surveys or are new hires. Furthermore, the schools are not filled. Unless the industry is fully committed to the MOU, its potential success may remain unrealized.

design appropriate programs.20 It is clear, however, that local and national commit ments to universal and free education for children are immediate and positive steps which can and should be taken.