Albion Monitor

Children and the Global Sweatshop

The reason is simple: slavery wages

Jobs making clothes and shoes have dramatically shifted to the poorest countries in the world in the last 25 years. And as for child labor, the situation is far, far, worse than you can imagine.

Those are the messages from two recent reports by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency. Many countries in Europe have lost half the jobs in these areas; in the United States alone, about one million shoe and clothing jobs have disappeared since 1980.

The reason is simple: slavery wages. A German shoe maker earned an average of $18.40 per hour, compared with $1.70 for a Mexican worker. In today's global economy, both workers compete for the same job. Guess who gets the work.

Because of NAFTA, foreign investors have poured money into about 8,000 Mexican clothing businesse

In the ILO report, "Globalization of the Footwear, Textiles and Clothing Industries," the authors also found that number of jobs in the formal sector -- factory-type jobs -- has remained about the same for the last fifteen years. But informal work -- usually piece work done at home, and usually by children -- has grown tremendously. "No one knows just how many work in the informal sector, but the figure may be five to ten times as high," Kari Tapiola, ILO Deputy Director-General, said.

Adding to the problem is the exponential growth of clandestine workshops, according to the report. Counterfeiting name brand clothing is a huge business: 5 percent of the world's clothing is made this way. It's a safe bet that those illegal shops won't welcome scrutiny from inspectors.

Worldwide, sweatshops are popping up in the poorest countries. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, almost all of the former Eastern Bloc nations have become home to sweatshops making goods for the rest of Europe.

The only nation in North America with a booming sweatshop trade is Mexico. Now that NAFTA has made Mexico a privileged supplier of clothing to Canada and the United States, foreign investors have poured money into about 8,000 Mexican clothing businesses, according to the report.

But more than ever before, shoe and clothing sweatshops are found in Asia, where jobs trickle down on a three-level system. At the top are the richer countries: South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. These nations are now cutting production and investing heavily in other least-cost countries. As a result, between 1985 and 1990, the production of the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia increased greatly and led the world market in exports.

And those second-tier countries have in turn begun to invest or redistribute part of their production to the poorest of the poor: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and more recently Laos, Nepal and Viet Nam.

The problem of child labor is so enormous and the need for action is urgent, choices must be made about where to concentrate resources

Thus far, government and international agencies haven't been able to keep up with the quickly shifting work situation. Just this year, the first international convention on the rights of homeworkers was adopted by the ILO.

Though certainly a step in the right direction, it's hard to imagine that it will have much effect now that the system is entrenched. But it's still an important effort: most of this work at home is done by children.

Some 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in developing countries, nearly double previous estimates. Of this total, some 120 million children are working fullŠtime, and 130 million work partŠtime, according to the recent ILO report, Child Labor: Targeting the intolerable.

The ILO says that because the problem of child labor is so enormous and the need for action is urgent, choices must be made about where to concentrate available human and material resources.

"The most humane strategy must therefore be to focus scarce resources first on the most intolerable forms of child labor such as slavery, debt bondage, child prostitution and work in hazardous occupations and industries, and the very young, especially girls," the ILO report says.

Some 61 percent of child workers, or nearly 153 million, are found in Asia; 32 percent, or 80 million, are in Africa and 7 percent, or 17.5 million, live in Latin America.

Girls more often work in domestic labor; boys work in construction, fields and factories, leading to sexual differences in exposure to hazards.

Girls, because of their employment in households, work longer hours than boys each day. This is one important reason why girls receive less schooling than boys, according to the ILO. Girls are also more vulnerable than boys to sexual abuse and its consequences, such as social rejection, psychological trauma and unwanted motherhood. Boys, on the other hand, tend to suffer more injuries resulting from carrying weights too heavy for their age and stage of physical development.

"Working children are often not readily visible. It is a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind'"

The horrors that await children in much of the world defy imagination. Although all jobs on the ILO list are not directly linked to products sent to the U.S. and other countries, many jobs, such as mining, have direct connection to international exports. According to the ILO, some of the worst child labor situations include:

  • Slavery While these practices are often underground, the ILO report points out that children are still being sold outright for a sum of money. Other times, landlords buy child workers from their tenants, or labor "contractors" pay rural families in advance in order to take their children away to work in carpet-weaving, glass manufacturing or prostitution. Child slavery of this type has long been reported in South Asia, Southeast Asia and West Africa, despite vigorous official denial of its existence.
  • Agriculture Children can be found mixing, loading and applying pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides, some of which are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic. Pesticides exposure poses a considerably higher risk to children than to adults. Mortality among Sri Lanka children farm workers from pesticides poisoning is greater than from a combination of childhood diseases such as malaria, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and whooping cough.
  • Mining Child labor is used in smallŠscale mines in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Child miners work long hours without adequate protective equipment, clothing or training.
  • Ceramics and glass factory work Child labor in these industries is common in Asia but also can be found in other regions. Children often must carry molten loads of glass dragged from tank furnaces at a temperature of 1500-1800 degrees Centigrade. The high temperatures lead to heat stress, cataracts, burns and lacerations. Also common are injuries from broken glass and flying glass particles; hearing impairment from noise; eye injuries and eye strain from poor lighting; and exposure to silica dust, lead and toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide.
  • Matches and fireworks Match production normally takes place in small cottage units or in smallŠscale village factories where the risk of fire and explosion is present at all time. Children as young as 3 years of age are reported to work in match factories in unventilated rooms.
  • Deep-sea fishing In many Asian countries, especially Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, children work in muro-ami fishing, which involves deep-sea diving without the use of protective equipment. Children are used to bang on coral reefs to scare the fish into nets. Each fishing ship employs up to 300 boys between 10 and 15 years old recruited from poor neighbourhoods. Divers reset the nets several times a day, so that the children are often in the water for up to 12 hours. Dozens of children are killed or injured each year from drowning or from decompression illness or other fatal accidents from exposure to high atmospheric pressure. Predatory fish such as sharks, barracudas, and poisonous sea snakes also attack the children.
  • The ILO wants to focus attention on the "invisibility" of endangered children. "One reason why modern societies and governments have not been more active in curbing the most harmful forms of child labor is that working children are often not readily visible. It is a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind,'" the report says.

    The ILO is now calling for a new Convention that would add specificity and focus on the worst forms and most hazardous types of child labor, including slavery, servitude, forced labor, bonded labor and serfdom, and the measures taken to eradicate them.

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