I woke up this morning to find a report in WWD announcing that the US government is committing $60 million to combating exploitative child labor around the world. There are many differing opinions out there, most of them obviously well-meaning, and so I'm going to throw my hat into the ring now with my own...
Why a Complete Ban on Child Labor Won't Work
Having had the opportunity to attend several workshops, events and discussions on ethical fashion and child labor, I am aware of the sad fact that some children around the world must work in order to provide for their families, and an all-out ban on child labor is neither possible (first, labor inspectors have little power, and it is nearly impossible to verify the existence of child labor in many manufacturing/agricultural set-ups), nor is it completely beneficial to some of the most poverty-stricken communities.
For example, UNAIDS has estimated about 12 million children under 18 years of age have lost one or both parents as a result of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. When a child becomes the head of the household, they have little option but to seek employment. A ban on industries that employ children would do little more than make than make a dire situation worse for these young people.
However, improved inspection policies, enhanced education and services supporting the eradication of poverty can have the desired impact of eliminating exploitative child labor. If a child must seek employment, we can at least do everything possible to ensure safe working conditions, an education and basic health services.
Curing the Disease by Fighting the Causes
The good thing is that the Labor Department (working with the International Labor Organization -ILO) clearly understands that, and is creating programs that will provide education and vocational training opportunities to children and help parents find viable alternatives to child labor.
The ILO launched World Day Against Child Labor in 2002, and it has been held annually on June 12, marked throughout the week by special events worldwide. This year, the theme is ""Give Girls a Chance — End Child Labor."
"Many challenges remain in the fight against child labor, but the department is committed to raising awareness, improving the quality of and access to education, and building the capacity of governments and civil society organizations to address the issues of children in need. This year's World Day calls for us to focus our attention on the special circumstances and needs of girls who are being used as child laborers," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
From the Labor Department press statement:
According to ILO estimates, of the 218 million child laborers worldwide, 100 million are girls. More than half of those girls are exposed to hazardous work in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic services and commercial sexual exploitation. In many cases, work performed by girls is hidden from the public eye, leaving the girls vulnerable to physical danger and abuse.
Girls are often forced to carry a double burden by contributing significantly to their own households' chores, including child care, as well as undertaking other employment outside of their homes.
Since 1995, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) has funded approximately $720 million in anti-child labor programs and rescued more than 1.3 million children from exploitation. This year's contribution of $60 million from the Labor Department is a great sign of commitment to changing working conditions for many of the world's fashion and luxury employees at the bottom of the ladder- those working the mines, fiber farms, and textile mills of the developing world.