During a recent field visit, I met a teenage girl called Karishma. Unlike my own daughter, Karishma works to support her family and has spent the past six months earning $1.09 per day making medical gauze in a local family’s home. She has no choice. Her dad is a drinker and her mum has health issues. A common tale in this area. She at 15 is the most employable person in her family. It is a trifecta of awfulness: making gauze is dangerous work, she is unable to go to school and she is chronically underpaid.
Karishma is not alone. Across South Asia, women and adolescent girls make up the majority of the workforce in the garment industry, especially in cotton spinning mills. The cotton that winds up in our cheap clothes sold by big brands has sometimes been spun by girls who are often unable to refuse excessive overtime and are typically paid between $1.50 – $2.75 a day.
In many countries and regions where work in the textile industry provides a lifeline for low-income families, the young women’s earnings may be the only steady income in the family. She may be working to pay off a family debt. But the girls pay a heavy price in years of lost education, sickness with respiratory diseases and sometimes emotional trauma due to sexual exploitation.
This system across India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and other emerging sites for apparel production needs to change. Companies, consumers and governments all need to play a role to prevent the exploitation of children and adolescents in the global textile industry.
Fashion brands must ensure that that their subcontractors enforce standards for recruiters who bring girls to the spinning mills. They must ensure that fundamental minimum standards of employment are enforced by their suppliers. This includes abiding by legal maximum working hours, paying their employees for overtime work and having appropriate grievance mechanisms in place for sexual harassment. And companies must make sure that their suppliers allow employees to take sick leave, and that they do not restrict employees’ freedom of movement.
The good news is that we’re seeing a global movement towards supply chain reform legislation. The United Kingdom – and soon Australia – has a Modern Slavery Act requiring companies to report on the steps they are taking to eliminate forced labour and other human rights abuses from their supply chains.
We as consumers also have a critical role to play in this fight. We can’t buy a $2 t-shirt and think our purchasing choices have no implications. We need to educate ourselves about where our clothes are coming from, and we need to support those brands that are doing the right thing – especially creating steady purchasing relationships where suppliers are rewarded with good regular orders if they provide decent work.
There are excellent guides out there to help us do just that. One is the work the C&A Foundation is doing with Remake to tell stories about the people who make their clothes. Similarly, Fashion Revolution is a global movement calling for greater transparency and ethics in the fashion industry. Another guide is KnowTheChain, which benchmarks companies in the footwear and apparel industry.
At the Freedom Fund, we invest in frontline NGOs working to end bonded labour in the textile industry. We help inform girls about the recruitment process and build community awareness and resilience against exploitation. Karishma met a Freedom Fund partner working in her village, and they supported her to go back to school. She is now speaking up at her group to warn others of the dangers of risky employment.
Tens of thousands of girls like her, in many regions of textile production, cannot get out of this type of exploitation. We need to move faster to ensure that no child is exploited in the garment industry.