Child Labor Amid the Rise of Fast Fashion


SEATTLE, Washington — Fashion is one of the world’s largest industries, representing our personalities, economic statuses, and culture. While societies in developed countries may accept fast fashion practices, unjust clothing production processes are often ignored or unaddressed. An Australian study found that “93% of brands do not know where their cotton is sourced from,” bringing to light how child labor and exploitation are involved in the process. Here is how fast fashion exacerbates child labor in the fashion industry.

What is Child Labor?

The United Nations defines child labor as “work for which the child is either too young, work is done below the required minimum age or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.”

Child labor affects an estimated 170 million children worldwide between the ages of 5 and 17, a continually growing trend that shows no discrimination to age. Many consumerist sectors, such as the fashion industry, enforce child labor by forcing children to work 14 to 16 hours a day, up to seven days a week, to accomplish demanding deadlines.

Unfair Pay and Hazardous Working Conditions

Along with long hours, children forced into child labor receive little pay. The U.S. minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires organizations to pay workers no less than $4.25 per hour and overtime if applicable. However, many companies using child labor to produce its fast-fashion demands rarely increase wages for those working long hours. Instead, large corporations pay workers very little, often not enough to support workers or their families. Moreover, the International Labour Organization states that globally “around 35% to 40% of workers are not paid the legal minimum.”

In addition to unfair wages, most children have to work in hazardous working environments from a very young age in the textile and garment industry. Children suffer from exposure to harsh chemicals, inhaling fiber dust and dyes. Additionally, dangerous machinery and exploitation affect children’s poor physical and mental health.

Child Labor and Fast Fashion

With fast fashion consumer demands continually growing, it seems impossible for children not to get stuck in the low-paying industry. Though wages are below the living standard, children continue working for underpaying factories because they believe it is the only way to support themselves and their families. As a result of this strange and harmful circular trap, the industry can keep production costs low and wages even lower.

Moreover, fast fashion’s circular trap makes it challenging for workers to remove themselves from the industry to pursue education or higher-skilled employment. The International Labour Organization estimates a rise in child labor despite a suggested 30% decrease from 2000 to 2012. The industry’s high demands keep 11% of child laborers worldwide from pursuing schooling. Consequently, the lack of education for these children means a lack of other developmental skills to continue onto higher education. Lacking the knowledge and skills to pursue other lines of work leaves workers constrained to low paying jobs. Due to fast fashion’s systematic trap, many individuals and families end up falling further into poverty.

Child labor has been a concern for decades. The rise of fast fashion and its consumerism demands has made it challenging for humanitarian organizations to make systemic changes to the industry to support human rights. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to eliminate child labor and slavery by 2025, has propelled many humanitarian efforts that have reduced child labor by an estimated 30%. However, individuals and organizations worldwide need to work further to end child labor and modern slavery.

Organizations Working to End Child Labor

Two non-governmental organizations are working to make the vision of eradicating child labor a reality. The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) has been striving to abolish child labor since 1989. The CLC is a U.S.- based joint operation by humanitarian groups that work with the government to present initiatives, conduct campaigns and testify for or against acts on child labor to improve the lives of children and impoverished communities worldwide.

Furthermore, the Action Against Child Exploitation (ACE) is a Japan-based organization working to eliminate child labor and complete the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7: “End child labor in all its forms by 2025.” Between 2009 and 2015, ACE saved approximately 1,200 children from child labor in Ghana and India. ACE also supported 13,000 children’s education in the two countries through its Field Programs. Moreover, ACE has accomplished successful fundraising for child labor relief efforts and continues to establish new initiatives to improve many more children’s lives.

As humanitarian organizations like Child Labor Coalition and Action Against Child Exploitation continue to eliminate child labor practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable groups can gain better living standards and adequately fight against poverty, the global crisis and their rights.

—Allison Elizabeth Lloyd
Photo: Flickr


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