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Child Labour in Fashion Industry


There is a considerable difference between many works done by children. Some may be classified as difficult and more tasking than others, others may be considered as hazardous and to some extent morally reprehensible (Basu & Zarghamee, 2009). In this perspective it is logical to define what the term “child labour” means. Most often child labour is defined as particular kinds of works that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and subsequently becomes harmful to their physical and mental growth (Baland & Robinson, 2000). Particular works considered to be morally or socially, mentally, and physically dangerous to the children’s wellbeing; and that which demand that they drop out of school prematurely, deprive them the opportunity to attend school or that which force them to combine schooling and excessive work (p.663). In extreme cases, child labour may involve children being separated from their families, enslaved, subjected to seriously dangerous exposure, and sometimes end up on streets to find ways in which they can fend for themselves (Bhukuth, 2008). Even tough a particular form of work can be categorized as child labor, the exploitation will depend on the age of the child, type of work, hours performed, condition in which it is performed as well as the objectives pursued by the individual countries or sectors (p.385). Since not all types of work that children participate in are regarded as child labour, children who participate in works which are considered healthy for their physical, mental and social growth are not classified as under child labour (Bhukuth, 2008). It is also noted that globalization has an impact on child labour. According to Edmonds (2002) there are two ways in which globalization would interact with child labour, i.e.: increasing the opportunities for more work hence enticing the poor households in developing countries to involve their children to work in such places as garment industries. Secondly, globalization increases the level of influence the developed countries have on the developing countries in their domestic policies, hence a possibility of reducing child labour if sanctions are used against the developed nations (Edmonds, 2002). This paper discusses child labour and its place in the fashion industry, analyzing some critical views and studies in the past and present.

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Differing Perspectives of about Child Labour

In the moral perspective, it may sound unjustified to support child labour but several economists have argued in different perspective and proposed policies that would help children prosper. According to the traditional economic arguments that are based on perfect competition, its proponents are likely to promote child labour in the sense that it will promote economic growth through cheap labour. According to this approach, increasing the wages for the workers will reduce employment and even make workers worse than they are supposed to be (Johnson, 1994). Again, restricting or banning child labor is likely to make children redundant once they are out of the legitimate work process, a process that is basically illegal (Johnson, 1994).

However, many people on the moral side of the argument have insisted that child labor breaks the bond that is supposed to be present between the parents and the child as the latter is exposed to the outside environment prematurely (Ravallion & Wodon, 2000). The other basis of argument is that children are supposed to be sent to school so as their wages are added to their parents’ wages hence increase (Ravallion & Wodon, 2000). In these arguments, it is assumed that if all the children are withdrawn from work, the wages of their parents will increase and subsequently increase the living standards of the entire families for the children to be able to go to school.

The Sweatshop and Child Labour

Even though there is a popular belief that children no longer work in the fashion industry and sweatshops, many observers see the problem as still alive and persistent (Wilson, 1997). In the fashion industry just like any other industry, child labour has been of very much concern to the society. According to Wilson (1997) it was apparent that many countries were facing problems of child labour in the fashion industry. Many of them were found working in the cotton fields, ginnery and high street fashions where they mainly involved in processes such as beadwork, T-shirts embroidery, accessories, and many other fashion products (Wilson, 1997). Research indicate that the major reason why child labour thrived in the fashion industry is because children are paid less wages, a third of what adults are paid for the same or similar tasks (Nifong, 1997). This is perpetuated by the fact that consumers demand more for little, i.e. cheaper products for little costs, while the manufacturers and companies also desire to maximize profits (Nifong, 1997). The economic policies that deny parents of these children their livelihoods have also been associated with the increase in child labour (Nifong, 1997). In this case, the children are at risk of being subjected to hard labour just to help in the feeding of the family members.

It may be difficult to explicitly state the number of children who are economically active, i.e. working to earn a living due to many countries’ unwillingness to share the data about the population of their children considered to be exposed to unjustified work conditions (Nifong, 1997). However, statistical estimates indicate that about 200 million children worldwide between the ages of 4 and 14, in addition to 140 million of ages15-17 are involved in difficult economic activities (Bhukuth, 2008). Of all these, approximately a half of these children are exposed to risky work environment (p.386). Many governments have made considerable effort in the development of various programs to help cub the problems associated with child labour in the high street fashion industry. For instance many developing countries have tried to remove children from their places of work back to school as well as educating the society that child labour is illegal and the children too have rights to live and enjoy their childhood (Knoebel, 1988).

However developed countries led by the US are said to make many of their products in their overseas partners with little expenditure on the cost of production. Baland & Robinson (2000) claim that those American companies in different countries have not been favorable to the employees especially when it comes to compensation and work environment, acknowledging that sweatshops are still present with numerous numbers of children currently employed as workers.

In many occasions, the society has ignored the problem of child labour as practiced in sweatshops in the fashion industry (Bhukuth, 2008). In the recent past, there was a shocking revelation that an America’s prominent personality Kathie Lee was the figure behind the exploitation of underage children in Honduras’ fashion industry (Bhukuth, 2008). This particular story reignited the used to be rather dormant issue of children exploitation in the fashion industry’ sweatshops, making the society to start rethinking of their views and opinions about the end of sweatshops and child labour. According to Bhukuth (2008) the presence of sweatshops can never be assumed since it is still alive in both developed and developing nations. Wilson (1997) observes that sweatshops do practice the inhumane exploitation of many young and underage workers whom they are pay extremely low wages despite working for very long hours.

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The general belief that sweatshops have been done away with has existed for quite sometime among many people. However Ravallion & Wodon (2000) claim that sweatshops do not only exist in developing countries but even to the developed countries like United States and UK. The human rights abuse is widely seen among the garment contractors where the workers are underpaid; the workers are paid far much less than the minimum wage requirement (p.159). According to the United State’s Labor Department, working conditions of the employees were deplorable with some news coming out that the over 70 jailed laborers from Thailand in El Monte, Los Angeles were forced to work for over 22hours a day for seven days per week and were paid only $ 1.60 per hour (Bhukuth, 2008). Other evidences has shown that sweatshops are very active against the assumptions that they were diminishing or even extinct (p.389).

Globalization and Child Labour

There are two ways in which globalization and child labour interconnect: the fact that globalization may increase opportunities for employment means that the poor households are likely involve their children to work in factories like those found in garment industries to increase family income; secondly the rich nations investing in developing nations may use their influence to push the developing nations to eradicate child labour, hence reducing the menace (Edmonds, 2002).

Child working
Plate 1: Child working in a small scale sewing industry in Pakistan
(Source: Article&Forums, 2009)

Globalization would lead to industrialized nations investing in developing nations. Such investments will increase the host developing county’s export, then subsequently increasing demand for local labour and higher wages (Edmonds, 2002). Such kinds of developments will most likely increase child labour, with poor households sending their children to work in the industries to boost family income. Indirectly, the enticing wages in industry works may make parents of the children to increase their working hours in the industry, thus delegating most of the household works to the children (Edmond, 2002, p. 3). In another dimension, proponents of globalization claim that the fact that globalization can increase family income makes it possible for parents to reduce involving their children in both industrial and domestic works (Edmond, 2002). This is possible when parents buy substitutes for gods that were initially produces by their children, or compensate for the money once earned by their children through increased income (Edmond, 2002). However, critics insist that globalization will increase competition in the export industries thus forcing small local firms that offered employment out of business, consequently reducing employment opportunities.

Culture and Child Labour

Many scholars have observed that child labour varies from culture to culture. This interconnectivity has increased its complexity in that even within a particular culture, the perception on child may differ (Edmonds, 2002). According to Edmonds, in some particular culture like in African countries, it is usually normal to find children carrying out multiple works in households and to a stranger from western countries; this would amount to child labour.

In some countries particularly West Africa, children are forced out of their homes due to poverty to work in firms as far as crossing the borders (Ravallion & Wodon, 2000). Such cases have been observed between Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, with a good number of children working in palm oil, coffee and cocoa plantations and processing factories (Ravallion & Wodon, 2000).

Recent Cases of Child Labour

A report by BBC that implicated Primark, a garment manufacturer in UK exposed some of the most worrying trends in the fashion industry (BBC, 1998). The report found inquiry found out that the companies affiliated to Primark used child labour as well as low wages to keep illegal immigrants in the UK (BBC, 1998). In Liberia, firestone was accused of putting unfavorable work conditions to its workers where they were required to fulfill certain levels of productions or else their wages will be cut by a half thus prompting them to carry their children with them to work. This revelation led to a worldwide protest and campaign against Firestone Company (Bhukuth, 2008). In 2008, the Labor Commissioner for Iowa David Neil said that the department of labour revealed that agricultural product processing farms had recruited nearly 60 underage children, as young as 14 years old to work in the factories, subsequently going against the state law that prohibits anybody under the age of 18 from working in such processing plants (Bhukuth, 2008).

Pro-child labour Cases

Even though many have expressed concerns on the increased use of child labour in the fashion industry especially in the developed nations, others have argued that any proposal to boycott these products from the child labour will be counterproductive since the children are likely to resort to more dangerous activities that would be detrimental to their lives and the welfare of the society (Nifong, 1997). For instance a study conducted by UNICEF revealed that after the introduction of Child Labor Deterrence Act in the United Sates, approximately 50000 children lost their jobs in Bangladesh, consequently leaving them with little options such as prostitutions and stone-crushing (Basu & Zarghamee, 2009). Accordingly, these jobs are considered more dangerous and destructive to the children than the fashion or garment industry. Milton Friedman cited in Johnson (1994) states that the child labour is not a strange happening since it started during the industrial revolution. Murray Rothbard, cited in Johnson (1994) states that British and American children during before and after the industrial revolution suffered more and even went a head and worked voluntarily in the factories without being forced because they had no jobs completely.

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Government Initiatives

The governments’ initiatives have shown the level of concern that sweatshops have brought to society. United States government for instance acknowledged that sweatshops have a new dimension of child labor, with many children discreetly employed into these shops with horrible monthly wages. In the United States, the Congress gave the mandate to promote a sense of ‘social responsibility” among the general population so as to clean up the poor conditions of the both mental and physical health of children (Nifong, 1997). However, Wilson (1997, p.1) observes that the Task Force did not meet the projected objectives and goals. He states that the fashion industry’s reluctance to comply with the regulatory requirements is one of the major reasons why the problem has persisted. For instance the Congressional Mandate puts it as an obligation that firms must pay the local minimum wage or just the prevailing minimum wage or at least adopt the prevailing wage limit in that particular industry (Nifong, 1997). According to Wilson, it is unfortunate that this set-up minimum wage is not practical as many firms from developing countries normally have insufficient standards where the minimum wages are set so as to attract foreign investors (Wilson, 1997, p.1). The problem with such set-up laws all over the world is that there is a general feeling of the need to only reach the minimum level with little commitment to take it as a firm’s responsibility. As Nifong (1997) observes, in real sense the fashion industry “merely complies with the substandard laws that have already been created.”

The combination between Task Force Agreement and the Congressional Mandate eventually led to the legalization process and practice that were actually taken as not humanely and thus acted as the benchmark for approval standards (Wilson, 1997; Nifong, 1997). The indication by the Congress that there was serious need for legislation eventually showed the insufficiencies in these regulations (Nifong, 1997). It therefore called for strict measures that would ensure a bit of fairness and equality of garment workers’ treatment. The Code of conduct that the congress passed also lacked the nerve to eliminate the sweatshops since companies like Nike had started implementing many of these policies, despite clear evidence that the working environment of these companies would still pass out for sweatshops due to their inhumane nature and absorption of child labor (Wilson, 1997). Furthermore, the companies decided to ignore the child labor laws thus exposing the underage to a 12hour per day work against the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937. The act prohibited child labor among many other things even though it lacks the regulatory measurements to monitor its effectiveness (Nifong, 1997; Wilson, 1997). Wilson (1997, p.1) claims that it would be effective if the code of conduct used the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1937 standards to establish their pay instead of the current situation where the workers, including children are pushed to voluntarily work past normal working hours and paid wages not commensurate to the tasks accomplished.

It is observed that a payment system that would be considered fair is possible to implement by just linking some of the regulations from the labor laws and at the same time get use of the support from the NGOs. In this part, NGOs play the role of monitoring the groups of firms to closely establish where there may be loopholes as well as creating a sense of responsibilities among these people (Nifong, 1997; Knoebel, 1988).

In the UK, There has been unending campaign by the Fair Trade and Non-governmental organizations for the governments to change their policies in regard to child labour in sweatshops (Wilson, 1997). As observed, a typical single workshop in the UK employed children whose average aged is 12 as workers who would spend 14 and 16 hours daily in the garment factories (Nifong, 1997). These children undergo brutal lifestyle where the only entertainment is a television that is only present when they are taking their meals (Nifong, 1997). Worse still, they earn less that $5 per month as most of the workshop owners are not very much educated hence show little interest in education. Nifong (1997) says that we cannot just withdraw children from work without a supportive structure to help them cope with the current economic situation. He states that the current campaign to discourage child labour must follow a logical framework where the children begin schooling at the same age of their entry into the labour market (Nifong, 1997). In addition children going to school will increase in number if there are partnerships between parents, governments and the industry owners (p.87). According to Bhukuth (2008) Fair Trade movement is basically against child labour but not child work, where the latter gives the children opportunity to assist their families, boost their self-esteem and at the same time learn various skills and knowledge

Nifong (1997, p.2) argues that even though sweatshops are faced with numerous controversies as concerns child labour and low wages, there is the positive side that has been shown; it is possible to eliminate them, with more economic benefits. He highlights that the private company regulations of 1993 which some companies like Reebok have implemented successfully and consequently have managed to manage its factories with no loss made in several successive financial years (p.2). Many economists have argued that elimination of sweatshops will be of many benefits to the economy as it will boost individual income. Adam Smith, as cited in Knoebel (1988, p.172) stated that the economy will benefit if employers paid good wages to their employees. He states that while the manufacturer brings his goods and services to the market, they tend to benefit from the increased level of purchase from their employees wages, hence advancing their income and at the same time that of the employee (Knoebel, 1988). In simple terms, this may imply that as wages increase the individual income, the economy stabilizes and the money workers earn can be reinvested into the economy. In this way the people will be able to educate their children rather that sending them to factories to work for a family income. Bhukuth (2008) supports this when he says that this is the best way to reduce child labour.

Even though there is a possibility that both the countries’ economies as well as society have the opportunity to gain from the elimination of sweat shops, many governments and the fashion industry have shown inherent failure in an attempt to solve the problem adequately (Knoebel, 1988). May be efforts by governments to sponsor monitoring teams will prove effective at the initial stages of trying to sort out the issues as concerns the plight of workers (Ravallion & Wodon, 2000). At present, just a handful of companies have made some little efforts to have their own independent monitoring teams which have proved ineffective. Even though majority of the lobbyists prefer monitoring through the use of human rights, the fashion industry players wants the monitoring to be done in the accounting perspectives, where the team to monitor should be composed of accountants but the (Nifong, 1997, p. 2).

According to Ravallion & Wodon (2000) the fact there are policies guiding the problem of child labour is not a guarantee that it will work. For example, it is stated that India has one of the best child labour policy but has never been implemented effectively to help the suffering children in the hands of brutal employers. He therefore states that the key to prosperity in this effort is to ensure the enforcement process is done to the outlined procedures. Certain research has suggested that elimination of sweatshops is in essence beneficial to the entire economy and the general welfare of the society (Nifong, 1997). In the developed world, it is observed that very few sweatshops observe the rule of making the work conditions to the required standards of health codes, thereby convincing many observers that sweatshop labour exploitation of children will be with us to stay as long the respective governments fail to take the initiative of enforcing appropriate policies and creating awareness.


The popular belief that there are no children working in the fashion industry seems to be a notion with no apparent convincing explanation. The level of concern experienced by many scholars is an indicator of the presence of the problem. Further research indicating that the major reason why child labour thrived in the fashion industry is because children are paid less wages, a third of what adults are paid for the same or similar tasks (Nifong, 1997) is likely to drive the profit motives of using child labour. This may be aggravated by the fact that consumers demand more for little, i.e. cheaper products for little costs, while the manufacturers and companies also desire to maximize

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Reference List

Articles & Forums. (2009) Child Labor in Pakistan. Web.

Baland, J. & Robinson J. (2000) Is child labor inefficient? Journal of Political Economy,108, 663-679.

Basu, K & Zarghamee, H. (2009) Is product boycott a good idea for controlling child labour? A theoretical investigation. Journal of Development, 88, 217-220.

BBC (1998) The facts about BBC. Web.

Bhukuth, A. (2008) Defining child labour: a controversial debate. Development in Practice, 18, 385-394.

Edmonds, E. (2002) Globalization and the economics of child labor. Neve Zurcher Zeitenung, (3) 2:4.

Johnson, P. (1994) American Government. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

Knoebel, E. (1988) The Modern World. Orlando, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Nifong, C. (1997) No Sweat Pact to Cut Garment Worker Abuse. New York, The Christian Science Monitor.

Ravallion, M & Wodon, Q. (2000) Does child labour displace schooling? Evidence on behavioural responses to an enrollment subsidy. Economic Journal, 110, C158-C175.

Wilson, D. (1997) Fashion Industry Forum.. Economic Journal, 101, C138-C155.

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