We've all been there: a weekend shopping trip to put you in a great mood, a sale on a line of clothes that is just your style or a nice window display that catches your eye. You get caught up in the moment and go all out. What you are not thinking about while making your purchases is who made them and in what conditions. When you get home, you find a note in the pocket, it's a plea for help from the child worker describing the hazardous working conditions they endured to make your new jeans.
Cheap prices come at a terrible cost to some
Swathes of the fashion industry rely on child labor to keep up with the demands of retailers looking for new, cheaper products delivered to stores every other week. In the increasing quest for lower costs, brands divide their orders across several suppliers, making it difficult to keep long-lasting relationships. When you combine competition and unreliable order flow, suppliers force their workers to produce even more for lower pay, and then outsource to informal sub-contractors with even worse conditions when demand gets too high.
The result: child laborers working on hard tasks like repetitive beading, dyeing or lifting heavy boxes and packaging.
The impact and true costs are not passed onto consumers, but rather carried in full by those young workers.
South Asia is booming – not in a good way
South Asia is particularly notorious for child labor in supply chains. The region is home to the largest number of the world's child laborers, some 78 million, or 9.3% of its total child population (ILO, 2013).
Globally, the demand of consumers has resulted in 152 million children working at an age far too young or in unacceptable working conditions (ILO, 2019).
Children from ethnic minorities such as the 'Dalit Muslim children' in South Asia are pushed into these conditions. Their work ends up in the supply chains of the prominent brands found on the shelves of stores in cities everywhere.
Unfortunately, the corporate compliance and auditing programs largely fail to help child labor victims, because they often don’t go past the first tier of suppliers. The most difficult, poorly paid work done on jeans found in the United States or Europe is in the lower tiers of the supply chain.
The third party and corporate compliance programs we read about and see promoted is often just comprised of annual preannounced inspections. It's inadequate to monitor these complex – often hidden – supply chains, and auditors rarely receive specialist training in child and forced labor.
This means almost none of these programs offer remedy for victims when cases are identified. Thus, compounding the problem even further and offering no exit for those working in brutal conditions.
Fighting against a problem arising in many industries
We can all agree that child labor shouldn't exist. Many businesses have taken this position and put efforts into eradicating child labor from their supply chains. But, it's not always effective.
The US Department of Labor’s 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor identifies 148 products (including garments, textiles, and footwear) in 76 countries as having been made with child labor (Bureaus of International Affairs, 2018). And a recent report on tainted clothing documented a child labour rate of 19%, and forced labor at 14% within home-based garment workers in Northern India, the majority stitching goods destined for major brands in export markets (Kara, 2019).
At the UBS Optimus Foundation one of our focus areas is to make sure people are free from harm. One way we do this is by preventing children from being trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor across the world. And we have a range of phenomenal partners we work with in this area – one of them being GoodWeave International.
GoodWeave was founded in 1994 by Nobel Laureate, Kailash Satyarthi, to eliminate the scourge of child labor in carpet manufacturing. Developed over 25 years, its system brings an innovative approach to the global anti-slavery movement that aims to stop child and forced labor. To date, GoodWeave has directly rescued more 7,000 children from servitude and deterred hundreds of thousands more from being prematurely pulled into the workforce. The good news is that over 20% of the global rug market is covered by GoodWeave's certification label.
Our work is at a tipping point in the carpet industry and is now taking hold in new sectors with thanks in part to funding from the UBS Optimus Foundation. This expansion includes promoting our best practices through capacity building of other organizations and thought leadership that defines what “good” looks like when it comes to protecting the world’s children from exploitation. This support will allow us to scale our work and help 30 million more children attain freedom by 2025 (the year that SDG target 8.7 seeks to eliminate all forms of child labor).
We have not found another organization working in the same way as GoodWeave. Their commercially viable model partners with industry and worker communities to reach every single level of supply chain to stamp out child labor.
So next time you are strolling through the mall, think about the seven-year-old Bangladeshi child who was forced to endure long hours to make jeans that sell for USD five and seek out a more ethical fashion product, maybe one that carries the GoodWeave label.
Nirmala was the only daughter born to a very poor family of farmers in rural Nepal. There was not a single day when there was enough food for all of them.
At the age of 10, out of desperation, she ran away with friends to Kathmandu and eventually started working in a carpet factory, where she worked under arduous working conditions, never earning a single rupee.
A GoodWeave inspector found Nirmala and brought her to their transit home for rescued children. When she arrived, Nirmala didn’t even have shoes on her feet. GoodWeave's social worker and counselor, Rajendra, remembers her early days at our center: “We were focused on making her laugh and play. And slowly, she started coming back to normal.”
Nirmala is now 17 and in the ninth grade at LAB School, a topnotch academic institution in Nepal. After years of missed classes, she is catching up to her peers. She recently started to journal about her life. The cover of her diary declares: My True Story Begins Now.
We collaborate with our extensive network of global partners to generate matched funding, leveraging our clients' donations. Also, UBS covers all costs of UBS Optimus Foundation, making sure that 100% of client money goes directly to fund the important work of improving lives.
If you want to make sure people are free from harm, and would like to know more about UBS Philanthropy Services and how we could work together to further your goals, please contact your Client Advisor or visit ubs.com/philanthropy