Who Will Stop Child Labor Now?

Tilbegumpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.

In Tilbegumpur village in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, a 16-year-old seamstress named Gulafsa recently led her own quiet revolution. After calculating a shortfall in her paycheck, approximately three days-worth of work, she asked her supervisor for the money. Unlike so many of her peers, she had the literacy and the job security to request her missing pay.

Gulafsa is a former child laborer. She and her friend Ruksar, age 18, shared their story while stitching decorative beads onto pillow covers destined for export. Until six months ago Ruksar never attended school. Gulafsa never finished the second grade. Now, they have daily classes in their employer’s embroidery shed, along with 20 other textile and garment workers. Gulafsa and Ruksar were part of a hidden, unregulated labor force, one that often outnumbers “legitimate” workers in factories, where protective laws and policies are more readily enforced. The foreign buyers sourcing the products they stitched never knew they existed.

Gulafsa, Ruksar and their classmates clutch their books with pride.

Before beginning classes, Gulafsa and her classmates were illiterate. They signed documents with thumbprints. Now they’ve mastered the basics. Gulafsa even helps her little brother with homework. Their lives changed not because an NGO or government program came into their village, but because the global retailer C&A and its corporate foundation, C&A Foundation, partnered with GoodWeave last year on a pilot across a region of India where women, children, and entire families stitch apparel and other textiles.

As the U.S. government retreats from its commitment to fight child labor [as evidenced by the Trump proposed budget cut from $86 to $19 million to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB)] such partnerships are all the more critical. We should be doubling our investment, not gutting it. In 2000, 245 million child laborers toiled in the shadows. That’s dropped to 168 million today: momentum to stop child labor has never been higher. We can bring this number to zero, but we’ll need help.

So, who will drive the movement in the absence of government leadership? This is the question I hear more and more. My response: companies like C&A.

We’re seeing serious corporate investment in supply chain transparency and labor rights. Even 10 years ago the labor rights movement didn’t entrust the private sector to advance real change. At GoodWeave International I’ve watched this progression from the front row. We’ve partnered with Target, Macy’s, Restoration Hardware, and other brands around the world to go all the way to the bottom of supply chains to confirm where their goods are made, invest in workers’ rights, and address any cases of child or forced labor. The choices of these companies ripple all the way down to people like Gulafsa and Ruksar.

The conversation is shifting from: “We have policies against that,” to: “Everyone has this problem, and everyone should take effective steps to address it.” This requires willingness to look deeper to identify all sources of production, partner with local NGOs to provide services and remediate problems, and build suppliers’ capacity.

Here’s why we need to look deeper: more than 90 percent of the child laborers GoodWeave rehabilitates are in outsourced, cottage industry production. While child labor is illegal under the age of 14 in most cases in India, and while it is increasingly less common to find children in factories, they continue to work in more remote locations. In fact, 83.6 percent of India’s non-farm labor works in this informal way.

The complex web of outsourcing means that when international buyers visit their manufacturing facilities, they may see only a portion of the labor force. It is as if underground, beneath the factory, there exist several small factories that do not follow “codes of conduct” or other CSR programs. These workers are typically paid a pittance, child labor is rampant, and debt bondage can be present — especially with women. This “labor laundering” hides people, rather than revenue. It’s not that most brands condone this; they simply do not know their full supply chains.

At GoodWeave we believe that informal jobs can be meaningful when we account for every worker, ensure that their children are enrolled in school and that important labor rights criteria are met regardless of work location. This approach is good for workers and for companies, who see outcomes like better product quality, more stable supply, and customer affinity.

This is what stops child labor. Our partner brands prove that a company can maintain — even advance — its competitive edge and make the investment to end child labor and modern slavery. They are leaders, along with others like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Indigenous. Let’s buy from them.

We asked Gulafsa what she would tell you, someone who may have a pillow or a blouse that she embroidered. “I would tell them that I made it,” Gulafsa said with evident pride. We asked about the benefits of their schooling. “People like me would often feel embarrassed to even make conversation because the other person knows so much,” said Ruksar. “At least we get to know some things and we are less ashamed to talk.” Better yet, Ruksar’s education can help break the inter-generational cycle of illiteracy, poverty, and child labor.

Gulafsa stitching a pillow cover for export.

Of course, to get to zero child labor, we’ll need government participation to strengthen education systems and local enforcement, alongside trade policy, and corporate accountability laws. GoodWeave is pushing for ILAB’s budget, along with allies in the D.C.-based Child Labor Coalition. ILAB’s global grants programs, research and reporting, including the essential List of Goods Made with Child Labor and Forced Labor, trade negotiations, and policy-making are critical to the global effort. As we fight for ILAB, we appreciate others like the United Kingdom, which invests heavily to tackle all forms of modern slavery and embraces private sector partnership as critical to the solution.

On this World Day Against Child Labor, I want to recognize the forces on both ends of the supply chain. First, to Gulafsa and Ruksar. When asked what her life will be in 10 years, Ruksar hesitated at the invitation to dream. “I will teach my own kids,” she then said, and smiled. “That’s it.”

To GoodWeave’s more than 140 partner companies: thank you for helping us to find these joyful, optimistic young women and so many more like them. Change can happen fast in the global marketplace, and sound business strategy is not subject to the whims of an election. By continuing to engage companies to seek supply chain transparency, we can free tens of millions of kids from servitude and stop child labor. Permanently.

Gulafsa on the benefits of getting an education.