The key is transparency
I recently spoke at an international meeting on taking steps towards ending child labour in global supply chains, organized in cooperation with the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Global March Against Child Labour, and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. I would like to share some of the messages I presented.
The positive news is that the Bangladesh apparel industry took major steps towards eliminating child labour, having begun seriously addressing the issue in the 1990s in collaboration with the ILO and the industry had been made child labour-free.
But we must always be vigilant because, in any country where there are high levels of poverty and where there is a huge demand for cheap labour, there is a risk that child labour might enter supply chains. I hear some reports that there are pockets of child labour in Bangladesh in, for instance, the leather and tanneries industries but the research on this area is patchy and difficult to substantiate.
The key here is transparency. At present, there is a huge emphasis on transparency in global apparel supply chains, including the mapping of factories so that it is possible to gain an understanding of all the factories in Bangladesh and who they are producing for.
If you do not know where, and in which factories your goods are being produced, how will you eliminate child labour? There will always be a risk if we do not have full transparency, which is why the work of organizations such as the C&A Foundation — which is supporting work to map factories in our country — is so vital.
We all know that there are laws and rules in most countries to protect the rights of children. But I think laws and legislation are not enough on their own.
What is more important is, are we thinking humanely? As factory owners, are we putting ourselves in the shoes of our workers? I believe that what I do for my own children, I should also do for the children of my workers.
All children, whoever they are and whatever their background, should have a right to an education and should not be expected to be working in a factory for 10 hours a day when they should be at school learning.
I would also suggest we need to recognize and reward those who are doing the good on the issue of child labour. That means recognizing the work of the apparel manufacturers of Bangladesh and the manufacturers of other countries who have been successful in eliminating child labour.
We should also celebrate and reward the work of apparel brands and retailers who strictly prohibit child labour in their supply chains.
There is another factor in all of this which we cannot ignore. Child labour is ultimately about cost cutting. It is exploitative in the extreme. But why are factories around the world so desperate to cut costs?
The obvious reason is pressure from brands to keep prices down. We talk all the time about the issue of poor purchasing prices, about how suppliers are being pressurized on price, and how lead times are getting shorter and shorter. Anybody who thinks these issues do not have an impact in terms of factory compliance is naïve in the extreme.
Finally, we cannot also ignore the influence of consumers here. When a consumer purchases a new T-shirt for just a couple of dollars, can they really be confident it hasn’t been made by a child? Consumers cannot claim complete innocence.
If clothing is so cheap, there is a reason. It could be due to the fact that the factory has hardly made a very small margin but it could also be because the clothing has been made by children who were paid just a few cents.
Somebody, somewhere, will pay a price for this cheap clothing, and it might be a child. It might also be that child’s education.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at [email protected].