Defined by the UN, child labour is “work for which the child is either too young – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.” Currently, there are 260 million children in employment, and around 170 million children are engaged in child labour. Besides the low wage and unlimited work hours, child workforce is also used because children are easy to manage and influence, and due to the lack of income or education (including the knowledge of their human rights), families often see no way out of this complex issue.


The Complexity of Child Labour


Child labour cycle

While the first and obvious “banning child labour” idea comes to mind immediately, unfortunately, there’s a huge cycle around child labour that makes the problem way more complex than we think. Besides being forced by companies, children are often coerced to work by their own families due to extreme poverty, leaving them no choice but to leave schools as early as the age of 7-8 to start working, which system (by the lack of education and income) is passed on to generations, without a way out.

Although forms of child labour are violent and illegal acts already, there are various other dangers a child is subjected to. Violent methods are often used not only to coerce children to work, but also to manage them in the workplace, which is one of the most complex problems within child labour. Even if the legal conditions are set (such as ethical payment, work hours and conditions) to protect children’s rights, violence in the workplace, or domestic abuse at home is almost impossible to see through and manage for bigger organisations such as UNICEF.

How brands are helping


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Fashion giants such as H&M state that the complexity of the issue makes it “impossible to be in full control” (Helena Helmersson, Head of Sustainabilty at H&M), but sustainable brands keep tackling the problem with a very successful approach that goes beyond not employing children, and between 2000 and 2012, forced child labour declined by 30%. By supporting local and ethical factories and production processes, brands are breaking the cycle that forces families and children to work in many different ways. Providing a workplace to the adults in the family gives them an income and opportunity of education, that can be a solution to extreme poverty (which is one of the main causes).

Education is also a way out: by providing information about their rights and keeping children in education systems as long as possible, they will grow up to be parents who can protect their children from violent child labour and earn an income. Unfortunately, this is a very slow process that can extend to generations, and with fashion giants providing a seemingly “easy way out” for families with child labour, it’s not yet a popular option in third world countries.

How can you help?


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After learning more about the problems with fast fashion, our first thought was throwing away every fast fashion item straight away, but there are more rational ways we can help the fashion industry to end child labour.

  • Learning more about the issue is extremely important – while this article is a quick introduction, there’s endless reports on what is child labour today and how to tackle violence in the workplace.
  • Supporting ethical brands – read more about a brand’s story and think twice before supporting a fashion giant that openly uses child labour.
  • Supporting education and human rights organisations – another way to actively participate is to support charities that work together with education systems in third world countries, providing a better option for families.

For more on sustainability check out our recent blog post here

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