Saturday, November 3, 2007

Was Your Clothing Made By Child Laborers?

When we think about child labor, we often think, "That doesn't happen here in the USA!" We assume that, as Americans, we would have absolutely nothing to do with something like that! But we forget that most of the clothing and other items we purchase are made in other countries... some of them countries where, even if child labor is illegal, the issue may not be monitored as closely as we'd like and the laws may not be enforced.
Recently, the Gap company learned that some of the clothing it was selling was made by child laborers in India.
In a run-down factory in New Dehli, 70 boys between the ages of 8 and 14 were being forced to make clothes that had been ordered by the Gap.
As is typical in situations of child labor, many of these children had actually been sold to their employers by poverty-stricken parents. Sacraficing one of their children could mean being able to help the rest of the family survive.
The work was done in a dilapidated building, where children had to work sixteen hours a day. The children later said that they were beaten with rubber rods if they didn’t work hard enough, and if they cried, oily rags were stuffed into their mouths.
Since discovering that the clothing was being made by child laborers, they have recalled all clothing made by that particular factory, and have vowed to crack down harder on factories that try to send them products made by child laborers.
Apparently, the way that the work got into the hands of children in the first place was that a legitimate factory the Gap had contracted the work out to then turned around and subcontracted it to this illegally-run sweatshop.
The fact that child labor exists at all is a manifestation of extreme poverty. Large companies like the Gap build thousands of factories in poorer countries, where land and labor is much less expensive. Shady factory owners use child laborers because children are easy to exploit and can be made (not legally, but it is possible to do) to work for very little money, or for the simple privilege of eating a bowl of rice each day. And parents turn their children over to these factory owners because the parents are desperately poor and need the money. Many parents are told that their children will be made apprentices and be able to learn a trade that will help them support the family in the future. So, starting with multimillion dollar American companies trying to save pennies, the children are the ones who lose.
Often we really cannot be sure who is making the products we buy, because child labor is pretty much done in secret. But to boycott all products made in countries like India, just to be sure no child has been laboring away to make our kids’ clothes, can backfire by punishing legitimate factories in those countries, therefore hurting those countries’ economies even more, and probably causing child labor to happen even more often!
One solution may be to buy “fair trade” products. Fair trade products may be a little more expensive than things you can buy at large chain stores like the Gap or Wal-Mart. But the quality of fair trade products is higher, and a large amount of the money you spend goes directly back to the people who made it. And when you buy fair trade products, you can be assured that the people who made them were not child laborers, and that the adult workers were not exploited either.
Buying fair trade may require us to consume less. Instead of buying ourselves ten pairs of cheaply made blue jeans, we may need to learn to buy five or six pairs of high-quality fair trade blue jeans.
To find out where you can buy fair trade products, check out the Fair Trade Federation or Ten Thousand Villages.

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