Child Labor in the Apparel Industry
Corporate codes of conduct are a new and promising approach that can contribute to the elimination of child labor in the global garment industry. They involve the private sector - rather than governments and international organizations - in developing solutions to this complex problem.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that codes of conduct are not a panacea. Child labor remains a serious problem - with hundreds of millions of children working around the world. However, their presence in export industries may be reduced by the implementation of codes of conduct. It is also possible that changes induced by codes of conduct could have positive spillover effects for children more generally - e.g., a greater commitment of a foreign country to compulsory education for children. However, this relationship requires further study.
Finally, because codes of conduct seem to be tools used by large apparel importers, there may remain smaller importers without codes of conduct still willing to overlook the working conditions in the plants of countries from which they purchase their garments. This question also deserves further study.
A. Child Labor in the Apparel Industry
There is a growing public awareness of the exploitation of child labor. Much attention has focused on children working in the export sector of developing countries. This awareness has contributed to the development and increased use of codes of conduct by apparel importers in the United States.
The consensus of government officials, industry representatives, unions and NGOs interviewed by the Department of Labor in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is that child labor is currently not prevalent in their garment export industries. In the very few cases where child labor was mentioned, the children were 14 or older. However, the use of workers 15-17 is common, and there may be extensive violations of local laws limiting the hours for workers under 18.
There was some anecdotal information about the prior use of child labor in the garment industry in Central America. For example, in Honduras, labor union representatives said that about two years ago, the garment export industry began to dismiss young workers to avoid adverse publicity in importing countries. Often plant managers no longer hire young workers (14-17 years of age) even if they meet domestic labor law or company code of conduct requirements. However, there are also some reports of fraudulent proof-of-age documents being used by child workers to seek jobs in the garment industry. There continue to be allegations in Guatemala of children working for small subcontractors or in homework in the San Pedro de Sacatepequez area.
Meanwhile, it is clear that children continue to work for subcontractors and in homework in the Philippines and India. They perform sewing, trimming, embroidering and pleating tasks. It is also the case that children are not prevalent in the larger factories in the Philippines, and that plant managers in India recently have become more concerned about not using child labor.