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.
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.