The Labour Behind The Label

We all feel great when we wear that pretty new dress on a night out. Friends often comment ‘That’s lovely, where’s it from?’

How do you think they might react if you happened to mention that your sparkly new outfit was made by an eight year old girl in Bangladesh? You could also mention the long hours that she put in in order to create it, more exhausting than a long hospital on-call shift. Her small fingers, covered in needle pricks working rapidly in 40 degree heat. Ignorance is bliss hey?

Sadly this is the reality for 170 million children around the world classified as being in ‘child labour’.  Child labour can be defined as ‘work for which the child is either too young, or work that because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is considered unacceptable for children’. Unfortunately the booming fashion industry that supplies our high streets contributes heavily to this particular injustice.

Should we as paediatricians, with a global approach to child health and wellbeing, lead the way in ensuring our fashion choices are both ethical, sustainable and child friendly?In the fashion industry, children in particular may be selected for labour simply because they are small and therefore have small hands ideal for cotton picking. Children subject to adverse conditions are more likely to slip under the radar as they do not have the opportunities or means to speak out about such injustices. Extreme poverty also plays a major role. Poorly educated impoverished families may feel they have no option but to send their children out to work. 

Due to the extremely complex nature of the fashion agency, companies can not always control every aspect of their manufacturing and child labour may occur without their knowledge. Many well known European and American clothing retailers have previously been implicated in our media after selling clothes manufactured using child labour. These include such well known retailers as Zara, Primark, Gap and H&M. However it is difficult to establish if those involved in managing the organisation were aware of the use of child labour in their manufacturing process.

Things are improving with the latest International Labour Association report stating that child labour has reduced by 30% between 2002 and 2012. However 11% of the world’s children are still estimated to have their rights to education violated through the need to attend work. 

In 2014, a joint report between the anti-poverty charity ‘War on Want’ and the anti-sweatshop coalition ‘Labour Behind The Label’ entitled ‘Let’s Clean Up Fashion’ named and shamed 12 UK fashion companies who did not engage with a proposal that all worker’s within the industry should receive a minimum living wage thus helping to reduce extreme poverty and therefore child labour. Only 3 high street brands who engaged with the process acknowledged the need for improvement and had realistic plans to address them (Gap, New Look and Next if you’re interested). 

So just a thought, next time you’re pacing the high street looking for that bargain, do you need to do a little more research?  I’ve deliberately not written the names of the 12 shamed retailers above and encourage you to find out for yourselves. Should we, working with children on a daily basis, and believing the child’s needs are always paramount, consider more carefully the impact of our purchases in our increasingly global society? Just a thought for the next time that sparkly dress catches your eye…

Useful links if you’re interested


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