Symposium: Uncovering and Eradicating Child Labour in Hidden Supply Chains
Hem Moktan is my colleague at GoodWeave in Nepal where he manages educational programming and care of former child labourers and children at-risk of exploitation. Hem rescued some of these same children from labour in his previous role as a supply chain inspection officer for GoodWeave. As a former child labourer himself, this work is deeply personal to him. He lost three years of his own education and freedom when a labour broker promised his father that Hem would have food, clothing and a salary, and then took him to work in a Kathmandu carpet factory. Hem worked on the looms from age 10-13, where he endured beatings, hunger and ridicule. In three years, he earned just 3,000 rupees—the equivalent of 45 US dollars.
Hem describes these as the years “when I was lost”. Despite starting kindergarten at age 13, Hem quickly progressed in his studies and graduated high school on time, with counseling and educational support from GoodWeave. He completed an undergraduate degree, then a Master’s degree, and is now pursuing his Ph.D. His escape from exploitation became possible when a US company decided to partner with GoodWeave to ensure its production was free from child labour. The choice this company made—to open up its full supply chain to GoodWeave’s unannounced, random inspections for child, forced and bonded labour—unveiled a hidden workforce where Hem had, until that moment, toiled in obscurity for three years. For every one of the 7,646 children like Hem that GoodWeave has rescued, there are nearly 20,000 more child labourers worldwide. But what can we do about it? Addressing this tragic situation begins with understanding why it persists.
The GoodWeave Approach
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are 152 million child labourers in the world. However, to find them and restore their childhoods, we need to know where to look. Over the past 25 years, GoodWeave has found thousands of child labourers like Hem toiling in hidden, outsourced, informal supply chains, comprised of complex networks of production sites, often unmarked with no official address. This is particularly true in the production of textiles, such as carpets, which require significant hand-work—from the processing and preparation of raw material to the finishing and washing processes. Prior to its export, a handmade carpet may have travelled from a weaver’s home to subcontractor sites to a finishing facility. One carpet exporter may have a supplier network of hundreds of subcontractor and home-based production sites that an overseas buyer will never see. These invisible networks often teem with child labourers.
When GoodWeave partners with new companies, we undertake an intensive onboarding process that involves thorough supply chain-mapping and deep due diligence. Our teams have uncovered up to 100 subcontractors per supplier, in the process finding child labour in hidden worksites that were previously unknown to the supplier. Then, we remediate all child labour cases identified (including counseling, family reunification and enrolment in education). Only after this process can a supplier application be approved. GoodWeave then continues to work with the company and their suppliers to ensure clean production and improved management of labour rights in the outsourced supply chain.
The hidden supply chain
GoodWeave builds visibility for our company partners and consumers. We stop the abuse and address root causes so they know who made their products, under what conditions, and that those products are child-labour-free. Quality data is instrumental in this process. GoodWeave’s Supply Chain Traceability Platform can show brands what their supply chains actually look like and where there are child labour risks that require attention and improvement. The Platform also tracks how GoodWeave remediates individual cases of child labour and builds producer capacity to prevent it from happening in the future. Longitudinal data in the Platform also enables us to understand how our preventative programming reduces child labour occurrences and changes industry practices in the long-term. The longitudinal data shows that, after the first year of partnership with GoodWeave, the supply chains of brand partners are cleaner and more insulated from child labour.
We use our data to track a rapid path to child labour-free production for individual companies. Whenever we identify a case of child labour, GoodWeave certification labels are withheld in connection with any goods in question, and repeat violators lose eligibility for certification. This creates a business incentive to stop using child labour. Our experience working with many companies over the years provides critical evidence that our holistic approach of bringing visibility, stopping abuse and addressing root causes is effective.
COVID-19 and Child Labour
Now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving these results is more challenging. Orders from overseas buyers for South Asian textile products have slowed significantly. For example, according to research published in August 2020 by the Clean Clothes Campaign, it is estimated that garment workers worldwide, excluding China, lost between USD 3.19 and 5.79 billion in wages from March 2020 through May 2020, while garment workers across South and Southeast Asia are estimated to have received 38 per cent less than their normal incomes. These disruptions lead to even more extreme poverty for the informal, marginalized workers toiling in subcontracted supply chains. Worker indebtedness is on the rise, schools have been closed and families are facing hunger and illness from the virus itself. Economic vulnerability enhances the risk of child labour, so children who were vulnerable before are even more so now because of increased economic hardship on their families. Hence, for the companies still sourcing carpets, home textiles and apparel products, ensuring their production contributes to well-being and not to exploitation is even more crucial. On top of our core work, this year GoodWeave has also focused on delivering urgent relief to informal worker communities in India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Since March 2020, our field-based colleagues, including Hem, have been on the front lines providing emergency food relief, hygiene aid, and COVID-19 health and safety information. Rapid research—to be published soon—that we conducted across the South Asia region on the impacts of the pandemic on carpet, home textile and apparel workers has identified troubling trends. One hundred per cent of apparel workers, and 6 in 10 workers overall, have either lost their jobs entirely or seen their income decrease since the COVID-19 crisis began. This places workers and their children, who have not attended school since March, in increasingly desperate situations, such as those described by a female carpet worker in Nepal, who explained: “I alone [am] the bread earner of my family as my husband died five years ago. I have responsibilities of all three children and due to lockdown I have very little work.”
Our research also highlighted challenges that required solutions to protect workers and families. For example, many of the most marginalized and hardest hit workers were not able to access government relief subsidies, because they did not have active bank accounts to receive cash transfers. In response, we launched a programme within the communities that combines financial literacy training and assistance with securing bank accounts.
Back at our transit home for rescued child labourers in Kathmandu, Hem and other colleagues are ensuring the protection of many of the children we have rescued over the past several years. For Nepal’s National Children’s Day on 14 September 2020 these children celebrated their freedom and shared their dreams for their futures. Even in the face of this pandemic, together, with companies, consumers, governments, local colleagues and grassroots partner organizations, we can end child labour by 2025, in line with Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
This article has been prepared by Dan Karlin as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.