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The human cost of a cheap shirt

Grandmother and former nurse Linda Sones sells organic cotton baby and children’s clothing and accessories, and natural, organic baby toiletries online at SonesUK.

This post examines some of the issues concerned with the employment of children in the production of cheap textiles in the third world. Child labour is an emotive subject and a consequence of extreme poverty which creates hunger and homelessness. There are no simple solutions and legislation alone will only drive the practice further undercover. The International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) have concluded in a recent report that corporations are not making sufficient interventions in eliminating child labour in cotton but that is not the sole problem.

Multinational companies have acknowledged the use of child labour on farms producing for them and have made some progress in addressing the issue, and they report that their investments in education have been a great success. However they have failed to address the grass roots issue of a fair procurement price for farmers which is the major factor influencing the continuation of cheap child labour on cotton seed farms. As a farmer in Uzbekistan expressed it “We know the risks (to children’s health) but we are forced to give up the children for cotton each season otherwise we will starve”. Employers pay children less than adults and they are not so likely to complain about working conditions, this makes them an attractive proposition to unscrupulous people.

It was estimated in ILRF’s report which analysed trends in child employment that approximately 400,500 children of which roughly half are below the age of 14 continue to work on cotton seed farms in India. Labour contractors will often advance their children’s low wages to parents and then take them to work on farms in other villages as a form of bonded labour. Children working in the cotton fields are at serious risk of health problems due to close contact with toxic pesticides and fertilizers and a poor diet. It is further suggested in the report that the 2007-2008 harvest season will actually see an increase in child labourers.
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