Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Is the apparel industry’s black eye beginning to fade?
Over the last two years, the industry has been publically assailed over labor abuses — from a slave shop in California to sweatshop woes, domestic and foreign — but this week it was lauded by a international watchdog group for its actions to curtail child labor.
“It’s the garment industry that has probably reduced child labor the most,” said Gabriele Stoikov, the International Labor Organization’s leading expert on child labor.
Stoikov, in town this week to discuss the Geneva-based organization’s latest report on the subject, “Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable,” said that while child labor still exists in many developing countries, it has been reduced in recent years.
At least part of the credit, she said, should go to pressure from retailers and other importers reacting to publicity over sweatshops.
Although data on precise numbers, occupations and ages of child laborers are hard to pinpoint, the ILO estimates about 5 percent of 120 million working children between the ages of five and 14 produce consumer goods for export, including apparel. The remainder work in a myriad of industries like mining, sugar milling, metalworking and the manufacture of matches, sectors deemed by the ILO to be the most hazardous and oppressive for children and on which its report concentrates. Some children also wind up as prostitutes.
“Is the garment industry the worst?” asks Stoikov, in response to the frequency and gravity of child labor in developing countries. “When compared to prostitution or working in a mine, I don’t think so. But I’ve seen children folding shirts and putting them in plastic bags, working 100 hours a week. You see children falling asleep on the floor of garment factories and being kicked. They’re like zombies.”
Stoikov points to child labor reform since 1994 in the two-million-worker Bangladesh apparel industry as an example of a country forced by publicity into reform in order to not lose precious export business. The poverty-stricken country also works as an example of the complexity of eliminating child laborers in emerging countries that have routinely relied on children as an acceptable part of their economy.
Bangladesh’s initial reaction to being scrutinized for using child labor was to fire some 40,000 children under the legal work age of 14, Stoikov said. The firings occurred after a scandal in which Wal-Mart Stores was accused of using a Bangladesh contractor employing 12-year-olds and the introduction of a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), which calls for exporters to certify their foreign-made products aren’t made by children.
Firing children wasn’t deemed by the ILO and others working on the child labor issue as the correct response because children, working out of necessity, are often then forced into other, more oppressive occupations, like prostitution. Through the ILO, UNICEF and other groups, working with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association — and under threat of a U.S. consumer boycott — an agreement was reached to put the fired children into schools and replace them with family members. If family members couldn’t be found, then children were given a stipend to compensate for their lost wages.
Although Bangladesh is still slowly implementing the program, the hope is that the country will ultimately be viewed among international corporations as a child-free garment producer, meaning that its “Made in Bangladesh” label will be synonymous with “no child labor,” Stoikov said. Consequently, other emerging countries in the region, like Pakistan, in order to compete, will be forced to follow Bangladesh’s example, and not just in the garment industry, she said.
The whole issue behind getting child laborers into schools is only part of the solution in reshaping a country’s cultural attitude toward children in the workplace, Stoikov said.
“Clearly, schooling is not enough; you have to intervene in the labor market,” said Stoikov, citing such steps as encouraging countries to create incentives to hire adults instead of children.
Consisting of government, labor and industry representatives, the ILO has as its principal mission to insure that unfair trade advantages aren’t gained from substandard labor practices. In recent years, it has taken an increasingly visible role as human rights groups and organized labor have pressed the issue of what responsibility U.S. corporations have for workers in Third World factories with which they contract to produce goods.
Stoikov said the issue of child labor overall has gotten more attention over the last five years due to many factors tied to the expanding global nature of trade. But it’s the garment industry scandals, like the case this year involving children found working at a Honduras contractor producing the Kathie Lee Collection for Wal-Mart Stores, that has many countries pondering their future as a partner in the global marketplace, she said.
Moreover, the discussion over child labor in the garment industry has helped to push the issue of all labor standards at Third World factories onto the international agenda. The World Trade Organization is now debating whether to require adherence to core labor standards — like the absence of child labor or the right to organize — in exchange for trade.
Stoikov said the pressures coming to bear to improve labor standards also highlight how the roles of corporations and governments on this issue are rapidly changing.
“There is no clear path yet,” Stoikov said of how labor and, subsequently, living standards in poor countries will be improved.
The call by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and others for an international labeling program by which garments would be certified as being produced under acceptable working conditions is one such concept being debated to nudge countries into change. Stoikov said she’s not certain such a program would be workable.
“Labeling is extremely difficult because it’s unwieldy. There are so many business relationships in garment production, so many contractors and subcontractors to inspect,” she said. “I think we have to try many options to improve labor standards and see what works. We should try some form of labeling, codes of conduct and monitoring contractors. We need to find what works. We are in unchartered territories.”