What Can We Do About Child Labor in Our Products?

10/04/2016 03:25 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2016
Children working in a Bangladesh factory
Children working in a Bangladesh factory
The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. International Labour Organization (ILO)
This fundamental convention sets the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 15 years (13 for light work) and the minimum age for hazardous work at 18 (16 under certain strict conditions). It provides for the possibility of initially setting the general minimum age at 14 (12 for light work) where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed. - Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No.138) ILO

Not all work done by children is negatively defined as child labor. Some work, that is not overly demanding, hazardous or work that does not interfere with school, can have a positive impact on family income and youth development. Still, there are estimated to be more than 160 million children around the world involved in child labor. More than half of those are involved in hazardous work. (ILO) Some of the products made or processed by children include; chocolate, shrimp, bricks, carpets and the clothing we wear every day.

Human exploitation has been a constant in human history yet, I would argue, the elimination of child labor is especially urgent because replacing child laborers with educated children can permanently change the paradigm of unfair labor practices particularly amongst the poorest populations around the globe. Of course, the key to solving any problem is to understand the nature of that problem. LaborVoices, a California-based company, dedicated to providing transparency in global supply chains, is helping us to better understand the issue of child labor in the country of Bangladesh by giving voice to the employees in Bangladeshi factories. In Bangladesh, the minimum age a child is allowed to work is 14.

In their first data release about child labor, LaborVoices reveals information gathered from January to June 2016 in 85 factories. This represents about 3% of the factories in Bangladesh’s apparel export sector and includes suppliers for popular brands such as Walmart, Target and Adidas. The LaborVoices report states that 6 of 10 major brands sourcing from Bangladesh are at “moderate” or “higher risk” of child labor.

“Scale and coverage is what makes this data interesting”, Ayush Khanna, Director of Product & Marketing at LaborVoices, tells us. “By reaching workers directly, we were able to collect insights from about 0.2% of the workforce in a matter of months.”

While data derived from factory managers that self-report about the potential for child labor within their operation will not always be reliable, LaborVoices collects their data from employees of that factory. The data is derived from mobile phone surveys of more than 5,000 workers, that have been trained as to how to use the surveys, providing a snapshot of child labor in those 85 factories during a six-month period. The workers reported:

· 500 instances of child labor

· 15 of the 85 factories (18%) had an “elevated” or “high risk” of child labor

· Another 19 had a “moderate” risk of child labor

Let’s try to imagine how this data can be used. Think about how consumer behavior in the U.S. has been shaped over the last few decades by the idea that we can expect the lowest prices for quality products every day. Retail advertisers have conditioned us to believe that low prices are as American as apple pie. What we’re not told about, however, are the real costs that are paid so that large retailers can arrive at those low prices. When we consider how unrealistically low prices may affect our notion of community, both in the local and global sense, it may send us searching for solutions to our discount dependency.

Loss of Competition - Selling tremendous volumes of a given product allow big box retailers to make more money on those products with lower markups than a small retailer would make while selling fewer items with higher markups. Since we believe in competition and free markets, though, it’s all good … except, when the process is applied to every product everywhere in the U.S., small retailers suffocate and competition is reduced. The U.S. manufacturing sector also disappears and free markets become monopolies for the large retailer.

Loss of Jobs - Building factories in countries where labor costs are low is certainly one way to reduce the price of goods since labor is sometimes the costliest ingredient in the products we buy. Countries like China, Mexico and Bangladesh pay workers pennies on the dollar compared to the U.S. And, while most everyone has resigned themselves to the reality of globalization, politicians still spout empty promises that they’ll return outsourced jobs to the U.S. amid the applause of adoring crowds. But, who in that crowd would agree to pay just 5% - maybe 10% - more for the products they buy if they could be produced here at home? (It seems the caveat of higher prices is rarely mentioned in those “Bring back our jobs!” speeches.)

Exploitation – When suppliers are encouraged by large retailers to reduce their costs by ten more cents so that you and I can have lower prices every day, how far will those suppliers go to keep doing business with the large retailers? Will they cut corners in the construction of their factories or in the safety features of their machinery thus creating a dangerous workplace? Will they pollute or exploit nonrenewable resources? Will they increase hours and reduce pay for employees? Or would they go further and use even cheaper forced or child labor? These are just a few of the ways low prices are achieved.

It’s hard to say how responsible the end user is for decisions made in the production of goods and it seems like a burden having to think about all of these things when buying a t-shirt or a bar of chocolate. (I mean, it’s hard enough having to pay the bill in a world with lower prices every day.) But, the more informed we become as consumers, the more control we’ll have over how the products we use are made. It certainly gets easier when better information is made available.

Khanna agrees that making the data public and frequent is the answer. “Having a single, worker-powered data source puts brands, suppliers and workers on the same page. Workers can choose the best factories. Brands can get early access to the data to stay on top of issues before they are made public. Factories that treat their workers fairly get the recognition they deserve.”

Click below to read the full report by LaborVoices. By knowing which factories are using child labor, consumers can begin pressuring major brands to stop contracting with those suppliers. In the end, we may find that low prices don’t have to equate to sacrificing some of the values we hold precious.

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