In Fast Fashion, Beading and Sequins a Likely Indicator of Child Labor

She found that 20-60 percent of garment production takes place in the homes of overseas workers, where many of these small embellishment tasks are carried out. paul prescott/ Shuttertock.com

In the ever-changing world of fast fashion, it is almost impossible to go a season without seeing garments donning sparkling sequins or intricate beading. But, a simple touch of glitz isn’t as innocent as it looks. These delicate details are often a small indication of the much larger problem of child labor.

In an investigation by the Guardian in 2006, Dan McDougall reveals the horrible working conditions of the child laborers who are forced to sew crystal beading onto clothing. The children, some as young as eight and nine,, were working in cramped wood-framed stations in a sweatshop in New Dehli, India. Sitting in filthy, scorching conditions for over 16 hours a day, the kids clutched tiny needles with their blistered fingertips, attaching each jewel by hand.

But, according to Lucy Siegle in her book To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? these sweatshops aren’t even the worst scenarios for these young workers. She found that 20 to 60 percent of garment production takes place in the homes of overseas workers, where many of these small embellishment tasks are carried out.

With the pressure to produce as much as possible, these duties are often handed down to the children whose dexterity and small hands make them the perfect target for the intricate handiwork. While today machines could easily attach these sorts of embellishments, the factory owners often forgo this expense in exchange for cheap labor.

“Beading and sequining represents a weak part in the supply chain with reference to child labor because it is unregulated and predominantly uses homeworkers,” says Siegel. “So there will be a great propensity to use children in households to complete orders.”

While many fashion labels like Gap and Zara having come under fire for the use of child labor following the disclosure of Kathy Lee Gifford’s label Liz Claiborne’s use of children in Bangladesh in 1996, the overseas factories of fast-fashion giants are still loosely regulated, with policies for at home workers even lesser so.

As Siegle writes in a piece for the Guardian, “Ethical Living: What Price Sparkle,” the predominantly female workforce, thought to be around 30 to50 million strong, is easily the most exploited.

“The pace of work is akin to that in the factories in the global supply chain where workers struggle to keep up with demand. To keep homeworkers on track tyrannical middlemen underpay and, according to research, resort to violence and aggression to get orders fulfilled,” she writes.

In order to combat the unfair treatment, organizations representing the working poor like Women in Informal Employment and the Self-Employed Women’s Association, are teaching women valuable skills, while advocating for a larger percentage of the purchase price for their workers.

But, the problems created by the fast-fashion retailers demand for new cheap styles don’t appear to be slowing down, with chains like Forever21 and H&M expanding internationally.  While stores like Zara that have 1,800 stores globally, are releasing 11,000 new items to their store a year to keep the interest of their customers, almost three times that of companies like Gap.

“Whenever manufacturers are in an extreme rush to get products from design to the stores, there is a greater likelihood that exploitative labor circumstances, including child labor and forced labor, may exist,” says Reid Mai, the Director of Child Labor Advocacy & Coordinator at the Child Labor Coalition National Consumers League.

“The fashion industry is one of the industries with a history of child labor and exploitative labor and needs to be more vigilant to eliminate these scourges from its supply chains.”

Many of the big names in affordable fashion like H&M, who has been accused of using unfair labor practices in the past, have made conscious efforts to eradicate child labor by joining organizations like the Fair Labor Association and speaking out against the issue on their websites.

H&M’s site reads, “Child labor is unacceptable. Our child labor policy is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labor Organization. But it’s not enough for us to simply say no to child labor – we have to do more.”

While there have been  efforts by retailers to right their wrongdoings, there are still many companies exploiting workers to meet their needs. Just this week, six minors were rescued from a garment factory with abusive sweatshop conditions in Mexico.

In a recent study published by The United States Department of Labor, Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Vietnam, where many of the fast-fashion giants produce, were guilty of abusing child labor.

“If you consult the DOL list of goods produced by child labor and forced labor, you will see that the US government believes garments are produced by child labor and forced labor in nine countries, with child labor in five countries,” says Maki. “We would ask apparel manufacturers who source from these countries to implement special efforts to reduce child labor and forced labor from their supply chains.”

Bangladesh has been put in the spotlight for years, as a hub of horrible working conditions and child labor. As Siegle writes in her book, “There are an estimated 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh—the world’s second largest clothing exporter behind China—a figure that represents around a tenth of the global total. These are most likely young women, and occasionally men, whose job is to sit behind a sewing machine for hours at a time, sewing buttons on to shirts or sequins on to blouses.”

Although Maki says it is difficult to say if the apparel industry has reduced child labor, he has seen a slight improvement in the past decade despite the rapid expansion of large retail chains.

“We believe that child labor has been reduced by about one-third since 2000, but there are still 168 million children trapped in exploitative child labor,” says Maki, whose efforts have been directed towards eliminating child labor in the Uzbek cotton fields.

With the extensive research done by Siegel and the work put in by Maki, it is clear that the fashion industry needs to move towards eradicating child labor in a serious way, but according to Siegel ridding the greater problem of unfair labor practices doesn’t lie only in the production of garments.

“When it comes to the fashion supply chain, child labor is not necessarily the biggest problem or as endemic as it might be in other industries – notably the seafood industry,” says Siegle.

“When it comes to the cut, make and trim element of the supply chain there is such a great resource of young women from rural areas that will work for very low wages, that this does not represent the most egregious use of child labor.”