Is Child Labor Out of Fashion? - Meet Arshi’s family and find out

By Nina Smith

The hidden supply chain

This March I met 12-year-old Arshi in front of her small house, where her parents, Jousef and Parveen, had stretched a large piece of fabric across a frame. On the fabric were pre-drawn sleeves and the bodice of a jacket to be cut and assembled later. Jousef and Parveen were stitching silver sequins inside the outline of a star covering the back of the jacket. Destined for a European retailer, the piece sparkled under the blue skies of the day.

Embellishment work is Jousef and Parveen’s only source of income. They know they are poor, as they have always been. But they have no idea how underpaid they are in relation to factory workers – or that their skills add significant value to goods being sold halfway around the world. I couldn’t help but think that without the big, silver star, that jacket would be plain ordinary.

This is the hidden, bottom of the supply chain.  The village near Sikandrabad where Arshi and her family live is part of a 200-kilometer stretch encompassing some 500 slums and villages from Delhi NCR to Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. The tens of thousands of home-based workers that have specialized embroidery and embellishment skills who live there are regularly tapped to produce goods for the global market, yet, they work in obscurity and they are poverty-stricken. Their children work with them, rather than attend school.

The journey of the sequined star jacket.

The brand that will eventually sell the jacket adorned by Arshi’s family likely knows very little detail of the multi-tiered, complex production network of sites involved in the making of its order. Its relationship is with one supplier factory, and that is where it will apply checks for child labor and other labor rights.

Talking with Arshi’s family I learned that the Western buyer placed its order with its “tier one” supplier in Jaipur, Rajasthan, some 360 kilometers away from where we stood.  Then the jacket took a trip:  first the Jaipur-based subcontractor placed the order for embellishment across state borders to smaller factories and “dedicated centers” (DCs) in Sikandrabad. One of those DCs sub-contracted a portion of its order to Jousef, who lives 10 kilometers away. Jousef stitched a portion of the order and sub-contracted the rest to 20 women, home-based workers in his village. And finally, the same chain reversed to get the embellished fabric back to Jaipur for tailoring and finishing.   

The DCs were paid 600 rupees, or $8 per jacket. But the home-based workers who completed the majority of production earned 250 to 300 rupees per jacket, around $4.   

Documenting this journey is important because here, in the hidden parts of the supply chain, is where most child labor and other economic exploitation happens.  It’s outside factory walls, hidden even to well-meaning brands.   

A market-based solution ensures schooling - and not work - for Arshi.

The good news is the fashion industry is starting to wake up to this reality.  Just three years ago, Arshi worked alongside her parents. Neither she nor her brother or sister attended school. This changed because an international brand joined GoodWeave, requiring their suppliers to allow full supply chain mapping to home-based worker communities. Once in a community, GoodWeave ensures all child labor cases within and beyond that single brand’s production is remediated, and that every child is supported to both enroll in school and improve learning outcomes. We do this work through our carefully implemented, high-impact Child Friendly Community program that ultimately led us to Arshi’s front door. 

Now, supplier factories to that brand disclose their subcontracting, and every production site must cooperate with random, unannounced inspections. All workers become a recognized part of a re-defined supply chain, and children like Arshi are protected from labor and now have access to education.

This is supply chain transparency. No, this is more than supply chain transparency. This is what’s possible when brands are willing to partner with community-based organizations like GoodWeave to work deep in supply chains to tackle the underlying conditions of child labor.

There is no place for children in a modern supply chain.

The day I met Arshi, she took me to visit her classroom. Her teachers described her as a serious student.  Since GoodWeave began a Child Friendly Community in her village, vast improvements have been made to the school’s curriculum, teaching capacity, and infrastructure. Our community-based facilitators work with families to overcome obstacles to allowing their children to attend school. Child labor has dropped while school enrollment has more than doubled. GoodWeave has sparked similar transformations in four other nearby, home-based apparel worker communities, all offering ready, child-labor-free, value-add skills to the fashion industry. We are changing societal norms and perceptions to value education – especially for girls. 

But let’s face facts: other kids like Arshi continue to toil in supply chains. According to a recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley, child labor taints nearly 20% of home-based garment production in India, with the majority destined for export markets. The problem is systemic; no brand is free from it, but any brand has the power to help change it. By working in earnest to achieve full supply chain transparency and making urgently needed improvements for all workers and children -instead of “de-risking” company-specific supply chains- we can eradicate child labor from the apparel industry. Permanently.

Join us and #changethepattern for 152 million child laborers around the world.

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We believe that fashion has the power to improve the lives of the women and men behind our clothes and to enhance the lives of everyone the industry touches. A fair and sustainable future for the industry depends on the action we take. As a part of a new series “Fashion as a Force for Good: disrupting the status quo” you will hear from some of our partners and how their organisations are working to transform the fashion industry into a force for good.