There are no reliable statistics on the rate of employment of
children in any particular economic activity, including the garment
sector. Therefore, most information on child labor in the garment
industry comes from eyewitness accounts, non -governmental
organization (NGO) and academic studies, journalists, and ILO re
The Department of Labor's 1994 international child labor study,
By the Sweat and Toil of Children (Volume I): The Use of Child
Labor in U.S. Manufactured and Mined Imports, catalogued
existing information on child labor in the garment industries of
Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Lesotho,
Morocco, the Philippines, Portugal and Thailand. While the report
noted that more research was necessary to confirm the extent and
working conditions of child workers, in some cases it stated that
children were involved in the production of garments for export to
the United States.
With the exception of Bangladesh, where children regularly worked
in large -scale, formal factories, the report found that children
were more likely to work in small subcontracting shops or homework
situations. In some cases, children were found to work in locked
shops, with armed guards preventing entrance and exit during work
hours. Children worked on tasks such as sewing buttons, cutting and
trimming threads, folding, moving and packing garments. In small
shops and homesites in the Philippines, children were also found
embroidering and smocking (making pleats). In some cases, children
worked long hours sometimes six or seven days a week. Some children
received less than the minimum wage and were not paid for overtime
Today, two years after our initial findings, children continue to
work in the apparel sector. A 1996 ILO study states that "...there
is no denying that child labor is still very much a reality" in the
apparel sector, although it is "extremely difficult to give exact
figures, particularly for the segment involved in world markets,
because of the complex subcontracting arrangements in operation."
12 The same ILO study also
notes positive developments that may have contributed to the
shifting of some children out of the garment sector: increased
international concern about the conditions under which
labor-intensive goods such as clothing are produced, and initiatives
by some developing countries to eliminate child labor in order to
improve the image of their industries.
Anecdotal information gathered during the preparation of this
report also indicates that fewer children may be working on garment
exports for the U.S. market at least in some countries in 1996 than
in 1994. This conclusion, however, is based mainly on anecdotal
evidence in the six countries where Department of Labor officials
visited. More research is necessary to confirm that a downward trend
in the use of child labor in garment production is a universal
phenomenon. 13 This is no
small task since a total of 168 countries export apparel to the U.S.
market, many of them small suppliers. There are reports of child
labor in some newer suppliers to the U.S. market.14
There are several reasons which might explain a potential
downward trend in the use of child labor in garment-exporting
First, any potential downward trend may be partly due to the
widespread adoption in the last several years of U.S. company codes
of conduct prohibiting child labor.
Second, public awareness of child labor and reports of its use in
export industries, including the garment industry, may be a
substantial contributing factor to a declining use of child labor.
There has been a whirlwind of media accounts and public pressure
concerning child labor during the past few years. Investigative
journalists have broadcast or published numerous reports of working
children, particularly in developing countries, making products sold
in the United States and other industrialized nations. In some
cases, news reports have named the companies whose products were
shown to be made by young workers.
For example, in 1993 an American television newsmagazine reported
a story of young Bangladeshi children making garments sold at
Wal-Mart stores. News accounts also reported that young girls were
producing garments at an independent Bangladeshi contractor facility
supplying Levi Strauss & Company. More recently, an NGO accused The
Gap of selling clothing made in Salvadoran sweatshops that used
young workers.15 In 1996, the
same group charged that Honduran children pro duced clothing bearing
the Kathie Lee Gifford label and sold in Wal-Mart stores.
Third, in some countries, such as the Philippines, increasing
numbers of larger factories may be squeezing smaller subcontracting
shops which are more likely to employ children out of work.
Professor Rosario del Rosario, a child labor expert who recently
concluded a survey on child labor in the Philippines' garment
sector, told Department of Labor officials that although there is
still some child labor used in subcontracting levels of the garment
industry, the numbers of child workers has decreased since the late
1980s. She said that subcontractors who once employed children have
reported that larger exporting factories have markedly decreased
their orders for the garments that they had traditionally supplied.
17 While this is not
necessarily the case everywhere, the Philippine experience
illustrates that a decline in the use of subcontracting arrangements
may cause a decline in the use of child labor.
A related development that may help explain a downward trend in
the use of child labor in some circumstances is the strategic
decision by some large U.S. importers to prevent or restrict
subcontracting by foreign suppliers and to consolidate their
sourcing with a smaller number of larger factories.
Fourth, garment manufacturers may be responding to concerns that
importing countries could enact legislation banning the importation
of products made by children. Such legislation has been introduced
in recent U.S. Congresses.
There are also cases where children have been displaced from the
garment sector, as business practices have reacted to market
pressures to reduce the use of child labor. One of the most dramatic
examples involves Bangladesh, where large numbers of children worked
in garment factories as recently as 1994 (see Box I-1).
International media attention and threats of boycotts and cancelled
work orders led to the dismissal of thousands of child workers from
the garment sector unfortunately in this instance with no safety net
in place for them.
In response to concerns for the dismissed child workers, a
memorandum of understanding was negotiated between the Bangladesh
Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and the ILO and
Unicef with the active support of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S.
Department of Labor to place the children in schools, and to offer
their jobs to older family members.
Thus, it is possible that in the absence of government programs
to assist children, the precipitous dismissal of child workers can
endanger, rather than protect them.19
More research is needed so that governments, industry, international
organizations, and others concerned with the welfare of children are
better equipped to design appropriate programs.20
It is clear, however, that local and national commit ments to
universal and free education for children are immediate and positive
steps which can and should be taken.
B O X I - 1
Bangladesh Case Study
In 1993, an American television newsmagazine "NBC Dateline"
broadcast a story of young Bangladeshi children making garments
sold at Wal-Mart stores. This put pressure on Wal-Mart to cancel
its contracts with Bangladeshi manufacturers. Other companies
informed their Bangladesh partners that the use of child labor
was creating negative press and was bad for business. At the
same time, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters
Association (BGMEA) learned of proposed legislation that could
restrict the U.S. import of items made with child labor,
potentially closing the American market to Bangladeshi garments
if children were found in the factories. Garment exports are the
single largest export industry in Bangladesh with over 50
percent of garment exports going to the U.S. Obviously, should
Bangladesh no longer be able to sell its garments to the U.S.,
its national economy would be seriously affected.
This pressure led to action. On July 4, 1994, the BGMEA
announced that it would eliminate child labor in the garment
industry by October 31, 1994. Thousands of children were
reportedly dismissed from the factories as a result.
Some reports indicated the children removed from the garment
factories were forced to resort to more dangerous and lesser
paid work in the informal sector. Rumors circulated that many of
the children ended up as street beggars, domestic servants, or
were forced into prostitution. Other reports noted that the
children were hired by underground subcontractors, working in
hidden garment sweatshops under worse conditions than before.
While there is no clear evidence describing what happened to the
children, it is clear that the government of Bangladesh was not
providing adequate schools or other programs for them.
Once it became apparent that there was no safety net for the
dismissed children, representatives of the ILO, Unicef, the
Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and officials of the
U.S. Embassy, asked the BGMEA to cease firing underage work ers
until a school system and other measures were in place. After a
year of extended negotiations, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)
was signed on July 4, 1995 between the BGMEA, the ILO and Unicef.
The MOU provides that all child workers in the garment sector be
removed from the factories and enrolled in schools. It forbids
any new hiring of underage workers, as well as any retention of
children once all MOU schools have opened. A monitoring and
verification system devel oped by the ILO oversees compliance;
and monitoring teams make unannounced visits to factories and
schools, reporting violations to a steering committee for
action. The MOU also states that the BGMEA will offer employment
to qualified family members of underage workers whose employment
is terminated under the agreement and that former child workers
will be offered reemployment once their schooling is completed.
A survey, conducted in the fall of 1995, determined the
number and identity of child workers in BGMEA factories. The
survey counted approximately 11,000 children a significantly
lower number of children than thought to be in the factories a
year earlier. As of September 1996, 130 MOU schools for former
child workers have opened, serving nearly 2300 children.
Clearly, progress has been slow. ILO monitoring teams making
random, unannounced factory visits continue to encounter
obstacles from some producers. They also continue to find
additional underage workers that were either missed by the
original surveys or are new hires. Furthermore, the schools are
not filled. Unless the industry is fully committed to the MOU,
its potential success may remain unrealized.
design appropriate programs.20
It is clear, however, that local and national commitments to
universal and free education for children are immediate and positive
steps which can and should be taken.