Child Rights in the Apparel Industry: Working Towards a Holistic Approach

For decades the apparel and footwear sector has worked to combat child rights issues with a near exclusive focus on child labor. Here’s who that leaves out, and what companies can do to bring a holistic child rights approach into practice.

In recent years, the apparel and footwear industry has invested significant time and resources to develop approaches to responsible supply chain management, with the fight to end child labor at the top of many companies’ priority lists. As a whole, the global effort to end child labor has made strides. The ILO estimates that between 2000-2016, child labor decreased by 94 million children globally, with approximately 12% of the reduction found in manufacturing (including the apparel and footwear sector), where children face the highest risk of engaging in hazardous labor.

Apparel and footwear companies have historically focused their contributions to ending child labor by establishing Codes of Conduct for their suppliers and creating auditing systems to promote compliance. While auditing has proven an effective way for brands to raise industry awareness and boost supplier accountability, audit-based approaches are largely equipped to surface negative impacts, rather than identify and address their root causes. Furthermore, many audits operate under narrow definitions of “child rights,” and neglect to include risks to children and working families that go beyond child labor in the typical sense.

Article One is currently working on a project to understand the full scope of impacts the apparel and footwear sector has on child rights around the world. There is a clear link between working conditions for parents and caregivers and impacts on the health, development, and wellbeing of children—decent working conditions allow parents and caregivers to balance work and family life, and to provide the care, attention and resources their children need to thrive. On the other hand, substandard working conditions can interfere with workers’ family commitments and abilities to raise healthy, safe, and educated children.In order for the apparel and footwear sector to fully realize its potential to advance global respect for child rights, companies should begin by expanding their Codes of Conducts to reflect more inclusive definitions of what constitutes a risk to child rights in the first place.

 

So, who’s being left out?

  1. Working mothers: Workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and maternity remains a key challenge within the garment and footwear sector, with impacts on employee and child health. Failure to provide adequate maternity leave, proper accommodations for pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers, and affordable on-site childcare can pose serious risks to the well-being of children and their families.
  2. Migrant families: Children are affected by migration in a range of ways. In some cases, they are left behind in rural villages by migrant parents seeking work in urban centers. Other times, they are brought along and enter the workforce alongside their caregivers, and in some cases, they may migrate alone. Migrant workers face a specific set of vulnerabilities in the factory setting, from pay discrimination and language barriers to poor living accommodations and limited freedom of movement. Whether migrant children join their caregivers in the workplace or not, the treatment of migrant workers in the apparel and footwear sector can have direct impacts on child rights to health, education, and safety
  3. Local communities: Impacts on children in the supply chain do not end in the workplace; but are intrinsically linked to broader root causes in the community context. Children living in communities local to companies’ operations can be affected through workers’ living conditions (including housing, water, sanitation and hygiene standards), access to basic services (such as healthcare and education), and environmental sustainability (including facility air and water pollution that can pose short and long-term risks to child health).

By adopting a holistic approach to responsible sourcing, apparel and footwear companies can help lead the charge to improving sector-wide respect for child rights beyond child labor, improving working conditions for parents and factory impacts on local communities.

 

To bring a holistic child rights approach to life, companies should take three key steps:

  1. Improve protections for working mothers: To ensure full protection of mothers’ rights in the workplace, companies should expand their supplier Codes of Conduct to include provision of paid maternity leave, on-site childcare and breastfeeding facilities, and guaranteed non-discriminatory hiring practices.  To further support families in raising healthy, educated families, companies should strive towards paying all employees a living wage, which not only improves quality of life for parents, but also helps ensure their children can stay in school and out of manufacturing facilities. 
  2. Expand engagement with local communities: From wastewater pollution to private security forces, children tend to be especially vulnerable to risks at the community level. Companies should closely monitor their suppliers’ social and environmental impacts on local communities and collaborate with third party NGOs or other local partners to launch context-informed outreach programs that promote the health, education, and empowerment of the parents and children beyond factory walls whose lives may be impacted by company operations.
  3. Adopt a beyond compliance approach to compliment auditing: While nearly every leading apparel company of today has some form of audit mechanism in place to guide their responsible sourcing practices, and many boast impressive factory programs to drive impact on the ground, the sector still carries major risks to child rights. To address those risks, human rights experts are calling for companies to take on beyond compliance approaches to responsible supply chain management. Employee leadership programs to boost worker engagement, improved purchasing practices that better align responsible sourcing with buyer behavior, and collaboration with third parties to launch programs to address the needs of specific vulnerable populations are just several examples of beyond compliance approaches being taken throughout the sector today.

 

Ok, so who’s doing this right?

While the apparel and footwear industry has struggled to assess child rights risks in a holistic fashion, leading practice is beginning to emerge. The following companies are taking a stance on child rights through robust policy development, focused community outreach, and beyond compliance advocacy:

  1. PVH protecting working mothers: Leading the charge against gender-based workplace discrimination, PVH’s Supplier Guidelines classify any maternity-related labor violation as a “Critical Action Issue,” pushing employers to remedy adverse impacts and craft lasting internal policy solutions. If identified and not appropriately remedied, Critical Action Issues including pregnancy-based hiring discrimination and failure to provide maternity leave as per local law can lead PVH to terminate a business relationship with a given supplier.
  2. C&A in local communities: C&A has focused much of its community engagement since 2011 on fighting Sumangali, a type of bonded labor that targets adolescent unmarried girls in parts of India by withholding their wages for up to three years to be made in a bulk payment for their marriage dowry, which is often never paid at all. C&A has partnered with the Tamil Nadu Nalam Programme, a year-long peer learning initiative that educates adolescent factory workers about their rights in the workplace, to fight the practice of Sumangali in their supply chain. The company has also joined forces with child rights organization Tierre des Hommes to support women who have been affected by Sumangali and provide rehabilitative care, vocational skills training, and education.
  3. Inditex fighting for living wages:  In 2015, C&A co-founded the ACT initiative (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) to advocate for a living wage Bangladesh. Backed by C&A and several other brands, ACT sent a letter to the country’s Prime Minister calling for the creation of a new industry-wide review system to oversee living wages throughout the nation’s apparel and footwear sector. Inditex encourages workers in its supplier factories to unionize and elect representatives independently, and follows ACT’s approach to living wage advocacy, rooted in collective bargaining and responsible procurement strategies that encourage buyers to consider the ways that purchasing practices may affect a given supplier’s ability to respect human rights.

Despite the strides being made by individual companies with bold approaches to risk mitigation, engagement, and advocacy, no sole actor in the apparel and footwear sector can provide a single solution to combat child rights issues once and for all. Collaboration will be key to sector-wide progress, and bringing policymakers, international organizations, and political leaders into the conversation with brands and suppliers will be crucial to empowering companies to meet their responsible sourcing goals, and to crafting long-term strategies that identify the root causes of child rights risks in the apparel and footwear sector and beyond.