Abuja, Nigeria: Recently, I was on a road trip back to Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. Along the way, our bus made a rest stop at Lokoja, a city close to Abuja. We all came down and set about getting things to eat. A little boy came up to me hawking “pure water”. He must have been between 8-10 years old. Even though what I actually wanted was bottled water, I bought two sachets from him and when he did not have any change, I bought three more sachets. I ended up having to give those three away.
This was under the hot sun, the boy was supposed to perhaps, be in school or someplace else; certainly not hawking. But he was, and I bought things from him and didn’t feel bad for it. As a matter of fact, I felt a little proud; that by buying four sachets more than I needed, maybe he could go home earlier than usual; maybe he would make enough sales to enable him not to hawk the next day but go to school instead.
I come from a society where seeing children hawk on the streets is not in any way unusual. It is not the norm; it is not accepted or embraced; no one is proud of it, but it is understood. This is because for us, we understand the need for survival. And the quest for survival is one in which everyone in the family must be involved in. From the child to the parents. The alternative is not pretty; hunger is real.
Child labour is defined as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and deprives them of opportunities for schooling and development.
Child labour in any form is problematic. No child should be subjected to work at a time when the child should be learning or playing.If we can't begin to agree on fundamentals, such as the elimination of the most abusive forms of child labor, then we really are not ready to march forward into the future. - Alexis HermanClick To Tweet
But it is not unlike the little boy in grade school who helps out at the family grocery store. As a matter of fact, the child actors and actresses on Nickelodeon can be viewed as victims of child labour.
Don’t think so?
Well, producing a season-long sitcom is definitely hard work and in becoming child actors and celebrities, those children are often denied the opportunity to develop as normal children; denied going to a ‘normal’ school or associating with other school kids (I mean, look at Justin Bieber). That doesn’t sound quite right, right? It’s hard to think of Selena Gomez as having been a victim of child labour. But what is different?
Two things: The working conditions and higher stakes. Higher stakes here mean that failure to do the job is met with grave consequences such as hunger and in the case of forced child labour, bodily harm.
According to UNICEF, nowhere is more beset with child labour than the fashion industry. Over 170 million children worldwide are involved in the fashion industry. This involvement is widespread in the supply chain from planting and picking cotton to sewing and packaging clothes. These occur majorly in developing nations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In response to this, many individuals, companies and organisations have come up in demanding better practices from fashion companies. Organisations such as Good On You and Ethical Fashion Initiative are some of these. Fashion Revolution campaigns such as #whomademyclothes are calling on consumers to be more aware and conscious of the practices of the fashion companies that they patronize. If these practices are not actively prohibiting child labour, they are encouraged to boycott the products of such a company.
Boycotting the products of a certain fashion label often does not help change or improve the lives of the little children who work (as bad as this sounds, and as bad as the fact may seem) for the company. Rather, it is most likely going to subject the child to other worse forms of child labour.
A mother who sends her precious child to go hawking on the streets or to pick cotton does not do that because she doesn’t know that the child should be in school. Neither does she do it because she does not love the child. The reality is that while mothers in the Western world often have to make difficult decisions like whether to let their kids have access to adult content on Netflix or YouTube; mothers in these places, and usually developing nations, have to make impossible decisions on whether to let their children go into the dangerous streets or face possible starvation at home. At this point, work, any work, is looked upon as a form of salvation.
The more I look at it, the more I come to understand that when a consumer refuses to buy a dress from a brand, and instead opts for another company which appears to have better practices, it is not done for the benefit or interest of the child. Rather, it is a self-serving feel-better gesture on the part of the consumer to assuage his or her “guilt” or sate the desire for action.
A key feature of a good solution to a problem is sustainability. Boycotting brands are only dressings on a much deeper wound. As this article puts it, child labour is symptomatic of a much deeper issue. The biggest issue is poverty.
Related Post: The Causes of World Poverty and Why It Persists
A more sustainable solution will be to create programs and campaigns geared towards raising the standards of living of people in these areas. These can be done through providing alternative sources of livelihoods to people in these areas. For the consumer desirous of actions, a good course of action here can be donating resources to organisations dedicated to uplifting the families of child labour and eradicating poverty.
In cases where forced child labour is the problem, the answer does not lie in boycotting brands. For the purposes of this article, the definition of forced labour is where the child is doing the work against his will, and cannot possibly leave it for fear of bodily harm or even death, and possibly at gunpoint.
I say boycotting is not the answer here because the criminals forcing the children to labour are not holding them for them to make clothes; they are holding them to make money off them. This means that they will commit them to whatever work they desire. If demand for clothes dries up as a result of boycotts, these people will simply commit the children to other forms of labour or even traffick them off.
Forced child labour is a criminal act of the most heinous nature. The only end will be to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators and put them out of business, permanently. The question becomes why is this not done? Why do we have information on areas of forced labour and it continues to operate? Why is action not taken and left to the consumer whose biggest action is to boycott a five-thousand-dollar bag from one brand and buy five-thousand-dollar shoes from another brand?
This article is not intended to discourage or disparage the wonderful work being done by fashion sustainability organisations. I am quite proud of their work and encouraged that they are taking action. I am sure they will win the fight one day. Until then, I will not be boycotting any brands (though I really can’t afford any of them anyway) and I will keep buying stuff from the little fellas for the singular reason that it provides direct impact; the reduced load on their heads is proof.
Don’t lose hope. Every action to end child labour is still important. Read this post to learn how you can tackle the child labour problem, particularly in the fashion industry.
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