International Partnerships

Are the clothes you are wearing free from child labour?

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Aïssata Sanogo from Mali was reintegrated into school as a result of the EU CLEAR Cotton project
Aïssata Sanogo from Mali was reintegrated into school as a result of the EU CLEAR Cotton project. © ILO

This year is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour which calls on all of us to raise awareness of the importance of ending child labour and to step up our collective efforts for impactful and sustainable actions. Throughout the year we are publishing articles on different themes related to child labour (see all articles at the end of this page).

This month, we are turning our attention to child labour in the cotton and garment industry. Cotton is one of the world’s most widely grown crops and one of the most important agricultural commodities, as the main raw material for textiles. It is part of our everyday life and comfort, making up our clothes, house textiles and many manufactured products. Most child labour occurs in agriculture, and cotton is one of the crops where there is a high incidence of child labour.

Child labour in cotton and garment supply chains

How many of us have even once considered that a child may have had to work in a cotton field without protection against hazardous chemicals or work in a garment factory, day and night, to help produce the clothes we wear or textiles we consume? Global supply chains are opaque and can help hide child labour. Children who work are being deprived of a childhood and from getting an education, and will most likely be condemned to a life trapped in poverty.

Low cotton prices and wages push families to resort to chid labour. Nevertheless, millions of farmers and families are dependent on cotton production and textile and garment factories employ millions of workers, worldwide.

There is a high prevalence of children in child labour in at least 18 cotton producing countries, where forced labour is also present. There are many adult workers who are victims of labour rights violations or forced labour in cotton fields or garment factories, where child labour is also persistent.

There is also an environmental dimension to cotton production and the garment industry, as the cotton value chain contributes to between 0.3% and 1% of total global GHG emissions and consumes a lot of water. These emissions are contributing to climate change and at the same time, due to increased water scarcity, the industry is also at risk from its impacts.

What are the facts?

Child labour is work performed by a child that interferes with their education, or is harmful to their health or social development.

According to the latest Child Labour Global Estimates,70% (or 112 million children) of all child labourers are in agriculture. This percentage increases to 82% for sub-Saharan Africa. Child labour in agriculture is especially common amongst younger children, for whom the physical demands and hazards of farm work can be particularly damaging.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits child labour and there are two fundamental ILO Conventions that directly address child labour: ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age for work and 182 on eliminating the worst forms of child labour. In addition to the international legal framework, the international community has set SDG target 8.7 which calls on countries to end child labour in all its forms by 2025.

Hazardous work in cotton production is among the worst forms of child labour, as children are exposed to harmful pesticides (as indicated by ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which was universally ratified in 2020). Children working in cotton can be exposed to harmful chemicals, subjected to isolation, high temperatures, and at risk from insects and other animal threats, causing serious health impacts.

The agricultural sector accounts for the largest share of child labour worldwide.
© ILO/UNICEF
Child working in a cotton field Sudan.
Child working in a cotton field in Sudan. © ILO

What are the causes?

Poverty is the most important determinant of child labour. Often, adult workers earn so little that they do not make enough money to meet their family’s basic needs. There is a clear link between child labour and low wages for adult workers in cotton production and in the garment industry. Children are put to work to increase their family’s income. Children are easy to exploit, are cheap labourers and their small stature and agility mean they are often hired in preference to adults.  

In most countries, child labour is prohibited. However, there is often poor enforcement of labour laws. Corruption and pressure from industry and trade interests combined with weak government capacities or a lack of urgency to act, create the enabling conditions for child labour to occur.

Supply chains in the garment sector can be highly fragmented, with several actors adding value at different levels. It is difficult to trace the origin of a garment back to the textile production and further to the production of cotton, due to often complex value chain and opaque subcontracting practices mainly in informal settings.

The role of industry

Businesses have a responsibility to comply with human rights and environmental standards, fundamental labour standards and principles, which include the prohibition of child labour, and it is the mandate and duty of state institutions to regulate business’ compliance. Companies can do a lot to stamp out child labour in their supply chains and specific actions include:

  • Ensuring corporate accountability and extended supply chain responsibility
  • Promoting and facilitating greater transparency and traceability
  • Conducting due diligence, including human rights risk assessments and continuous monitoring
  • Conducting responsible purchasing practices
  • Adhering to labour rights and standards such as social dialogue, freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Supporting effective grievance mechanisms
  • Supporting children (and their families and communities) in or at risk of child labour in their supply chains with remediation and prevention mechanisms
  • Partnering with local and international organisations, including civil society, that are helping eradicate child labour

The EU stands committed to the eradication of child labour in cotton

You can read about the efforts of the EU to eliminate child labour in agriculture in our article from May and the EU has been actively supporting ‘Garment Action’ with specific measures to eliminate child labour and forced labour in the cotton, textile and garment value chains in selected countries.

The EU promotes the adherence to the Fundamental ILO Conventions in global supply chains. We also support the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector that helps enterprises implement the due diligence recommendations contained in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises along the garment and footwear supply chain in order to avoid and address the potential negative impacts of their activities and supply chains. The risk factors on child labour are elaborated in the first module of the guidance.

The EU is strongly committed to zero-tolerance policy on child labour and forced labour, EU trade policies integrate this engagement.  The EU continues to invest in responsible management in global supply chains, including through corporate social responsibility, due diligence, and the promotion of decent work and social and labour protection, that all contribute towards the eradication of child labour.

Helping eradicate child labour from cotton production in Uzbekistan

Major progress towards the eradication of child and forced labour from cotton production in Uzbekistan was made possible with the help of EU support. ILO monitors reported in 2018 that forced labour during the cotton harvest has been significantly reduced and child labour is no longer a concern.

The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest recruitment operations, with some 2.6 million people temporarily picking cotton every year. Previously, over a million school children, as young as nine years old would miss school and help with the cotton harvest in dire conditions.

The ILO, with the financial support of the EU, has trained labour inspectors, public prosecutors and human rights activists on investigation techniques, enabled journalists to freely cover the issue and facilitated the exchange of best practices. Read more about the ILO project.

Cotton picker in Uzbekistan.
Cotton picker in Uzbekistan. © ILO

CLEAR Cotton - eradicating child labour in the cotton, textile and garment supply chains

Through the CLEAR Cotton project, we have partnered with the ILO and FAO to eliminate child labour in all its forms in the cotton, textile and garment value chains in target producing countries, Burkina Faso, Mali, Pakistan and Peru.

The project combines an integrated area-based and value chain approaches to cooperate with governments, social partners, local farmers and communities, and international buyers. It seeks to strengthen national legislation, policies and programmes to address the basic needs and rights of children and to combat child labour and forced labour and is supporting local governments, public services providers, and other relevant stakeholders to take effective action to stop child labour and forced labour in these sector.

In Pakistan, the FAO and ILO are working with cotton growing communities to build capacities and awareness to prevent harm to children and farmers from pesticides. This is an example of children performing hazardous tasks and is considered among the worst forms of child labour. The FAO have produced a documentary about the work: “Protecting children from pesticides in Pakistan”.

The project has so far removed 4,000 children from the cotton fields and reintegrated them into special schools; older children have received training for suitable jobs when reaching the minimum age for work, also in the cotton and ancillary sectors. See project brochure and project webpage.

ILO Clear Cotton - OSH Awareness raising Pakistan 2020.
ILO Clear Cotton - OSH Awareness raising Pakistan 2020. © ILO
ILO-FAO CLEAR Cotton Pesticides Guide Pakistan 2021.
ILO-FAO CLEAR Cotton Pesticides Guide Pakistan 2021. © FAO

Raising consumer awareness

The EU has been actively supporting awareness raising and consumer campaigns to highlight the hidden risks and consequences for people and the environment as a result of “cheap clothes”. The #BEYONDYOURCLOTHES and FashionChecker campaigns are informing consumers about labour rights and environmental issues related to the garment industry so people are empowered to take informed consumer choices.

Join us on our journey to end child labour

The EU will continue to explore new areas and innovative and effective approaches to eradicate child labour, in cooperation with existing initiatives and alliances. We are ready to actively participate and commit to continue working with all actors towards accelerated action to achieve target 8.7 by 2025.

The FAO, in collaboration with the ILO, is organising the Global Solutions Forum: Acting together to end child labour in agriculture to increase awareness and knowledge on existing solutions to prevent and end child labour in different agricultural sub-sectors and different regions. It is expected to lead to concrete actions and strengthened collaborations among a wide range of actors and will feed into the Fifth Global Conference on Child Labour to be held in South Africa in 2022. Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships (INTPA) will be participating in a high level dialogue at the forum.

The UN Global Compact Local Networks UK & USA is holding a Webinar on Child Labour in Agriculture on 19 October to discuss the challenges and examine practical actions business can take to address child labour within the sector.

The EU ‘Sustainable corporate governance initiative aims at improving the EU regulatory framework on company law and corporate governance to better align the interests of all stakeholders and help companies to promote and protect social and human rights, including the rights of the child and the prohibition of child labour. To help the private sector comply with the upcoming legislation, the EU will be providing accompanying support to companies in the EU and in our partner countries.

We call on all to step-up their actions: governments, private sector, civil society, communities, education systems, trade unions and other stakeholders. If not, we risk losing another generation of children to child labour, who are missing out on education and other crucial opportunities in life.

Let’s end child labour together!

2021 International Year on the elimination of Child Labour
Acting together to end child labour in agriculture

Further resources, news & events

Previous monthly articles exploring different themes on child labour for the International Year