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FLA Report Identifies Ways to Mitigate Child Labor Risks in Cotton Sector

A new report from the Fair Labor Association and the Development Workshop Cooperative found levels of child labor in Turkey’s cotton supply chain, but more critically, the lack of a governmental or industry system of inspections or supply chain mapping makes it difficult the measure the extent of the problem.

The FLA, which promotes and protects workers’ rights and works to improves workplace conditions, and DWC, a civil society organization based in Turkey, said in the report that while the research team involved in the study was able to report on working conditions through four tiers of the garment supply chain and was able to document several instances of child labor at tier-4 cotton farms, the pilot was unable to reach one of its primary objectives—tracing a garment sold in the Netherlands back through all supply chain tiers to the source of cotton in Turkey. For this reason, the project cannot guarantee that any products sold by participating companies are free from child labor, nor state definitively the level of risk of child labor faced by the specific companies participating in the project.

Where the project team found evidence of child labor, many stakeholders reported that poverty and low wages were the most prevalent causes. Children had to work because two parents alone, even with both working seven days a week, could not support the family. Project staff also found that child labor was not limited to agriculture, with children of agricultural laborers working in construction and other industries.

The project team worked with seven garment brands–C&A, Coolinvestments, Du Pon & De Bruin, Just Brands, PVH Corp., Varova Fashion Holding and WE Fashion–to build a supply chain mapping model that identifies suppliers in deeper tiers of a company’s supply chain and child labor risks at each tier so that mitigation efforts can focus on specific areas of concern. Tracing the supply chain from garment to seed and documenting labor conditions along the way proved difficult.

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‘’Being one of the first multi-stakeholder projects of this kind, resulting in a public report with concrete recommendations for companies, this is an approach worth replicating,” said Gerard Oonk, senior advocacy officer for the Stop Child Labor Coalition. “In the coming years, we also hope to see the results on the ground with less children working in the cotton supply chain of companies and more children going to school.”

The report said difficulties with supply chain mapping prevented project staff from definitively connecting specific farms with the tier-1 suppliers interviewed at the beginning of the project. During harvest time, when child labor is most likely, the project team visited five medium-sized cotton farms in the Şanlıurfa province in southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border. Here the project team detected several children, including the children of Syrian refugee families, working to harvest cotton, some as young as eight.

In addition to Syrian refugee child workers, the team encountered children of Turkish migrant families and tenant farmers, as well as local children working in fields owned by relatives. At this level of the supply chain, low wages and poverty drive the use of child labor. Families are often paid according to the amount of cotton they harvest in total, so as many family members as possible—including children—must work together to maximize income.

Over the course of 2016, the groups collaborated on a pilot project to trace the garment and cotton supply chains of seven multinational companies sourcing from Turkey and doing business in the Netherlands. The motivation for the pilot came from the Working Group on Child Labor – a multi-stakeholder group of Dutch sector organizations, garment companies and NGOs formed as part of the Action Plan for a Sustainable Dutch Garment sector established in 2013. The goal of the Working Group was to investigate ways to eradicate child labor from the textile supply chains of companies doing business in the Netherlands. The results are intended to inform government and company efforts to enact their child-labor prevention goals, especially as they relate the requirements of the Dutch Agreement on a Sustainable Garment and Textile Sector signed in July 2016 as the pilot was underway.

The Working Group chose to focus on tracing garments produced in Turkey because all pilot-participating companies source extensively from Turkey, the Netherlands imports 5.5% of Turkey’s total garment and textile exports, the European Union as a whole is Turkey’s biggest buyer of garments and textiles, and the Syrian refugee crisis has led the migration of over 2.9 million people into Turkey, increasing the risks of child labor.

According to Turkish government statistics, in 2012, 893,000 children (5.85%) were working in Turkey, with 399,000 working in agriculture and 217,000 working in industry, including manufacturing. While there are no official Turkish statistics available on child labor since 2012, the influx of nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, 45 percent of them children, in recent years suggests that the current figures may be much higher. Recent human rights organizations and media reports have highlighted the use of child labor in the informal sector in Turkey, and government statistics from 2014 indicate that 82 percent of agricultural workers are employed informally. In Turkey, the legal minimum age for most employment is 15, though for agricultural work the minimum age is 16, provided that the child’s access to education and their health and safety are protected.

“Confronting child labor in a complex, global garment industry is going to require that all commit to a collaborative supply chain mapping process that prioritizes trust and transparency,” said FLA President and Chief Executive Officer Sharon Waxman. “This pilot project shows that the challenges are real, and child labor and other violations may be embedded in company’s product unless there is concerted effort toward greater visibility and action deeper into all tiers of the supply chain.”

Evidence from the pilot suggests that companies should focus efforts on areas where child labor has been proven to exist–areas with high concentrations of refugees, for example, and where cotton is harvested largely by hand. To comply with international guidelines and conventions requiring supply chains to be entirely free of child labor, companies should also strengthen efforts to communicate labor rights standards through all tiers. In addition, companies and tier-1 suppliers should devise internal strategies and systems for supply chain mapping and risk mitigation, preferably in consultation with local stakeholders.

The project team recommends that companies working to mitigate child labor in supply chains collectively advocate for governments to improve inspection and enforcement at all levels of the supply chain, especially at the farm level. For example, project staff found that minimum wages in cotton harvesting areas are insufficient to allow an average family to provide for themselves, that social security benefits are not paid at tier 4, and that labor contractors charge illegal fees to workers. These contributing factors to families’ poor financial status — a root cause of child labor — can be addressed by greater government enforcement of wage and benefit laws.

The group added that reduce the need for families to send children to work, the cotton-to-garment production system will need an infusion of capital. Regulatory pressure from both the ends of the supply chain can help incentivize all stakeholders to work together so that young Turks, Kurds, Syrians and others are not subsidizing the cost of clothing by sacrificing their childhood.