Forced Labor and Child Trafficking in India’s Garment Sector
September 20, 2017
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that 168 million children worldwide are considered child laborers. This means that almost 11 percent of the world’s children are working, which interferes with their ability to get an education, and jeopardizes their safety and their ability to experience childhood. The largest number of laborers in the 5 to 17-year-old age group is still found in the Asia-Pacific region.
The ILO estimates that in India, 5.8 million children from 5 to 17 years old work under poor conditions, representing the highest rate of child labor in South Asia. While the agriculture industry has the highest number of forced child laborers, increasingly, other industries such as the garment sector are attracting more child workers as they expand.
India’s garment sector employs about 40 million workers directly and 60 million indirectly, and is the second largest provider of employment, after agriculture. India’s overall textile exports during 2015-16 stood at $40 billion. The Indian textiles industry, currently estimated at around $108 billion, is expected to reach $223 billion by 2021.
India’s 2011 census reports there are 8.2 million child laborers in the 5-14-year-old age group. Civil society organizations have reported that figure to be much higher, and have reiterated the presence of trafficked children and children in forced labor in India’s garment sector, working across all supply chains in cotton fields, mills, factories, and home-based operations. The Global March Against Child Labor estimates that 100,000 children work for more than 14 hours a day in the illegal sweatshops in and around Delhi. A study by the India Committee of the Netherlands suggests that almost half a million children—the majority of them girls from Dalit (low caste) and Adivasi (tribal) families—work on cotton-seed farms.
Despite these high figures, a number of national legal frameworks surrounding human trafficking and forced child labor have been put in place in India since independence. Article 24 of the Constitution prohibits employment of children under 14 in factories, mines, and other hazardous employment. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act enacted in 1986 and amended in 2016, aims to regulate the engagement of children in certain “hazardous” occupations including handling of toxic or inflammable substances or explosives, mining, and other hazardous processes.
However, the 1986 Act deals only with the organized sector, which accounts for only 10 percent of the child labor force, leaving the other 90 percent in the unorganized urban and rural sectors and family units outside of the Act’s regulations. In response to ongoing criticism, India’s government strengthened the Act last year, establishing that “no child (under the age of 14) shall be employed or permitted to work in any occupation or process, with the exception if that child helps his family or family enterprise in non-hazardous occupations or processes, after school hours, or during school holidays.” Child rights activists are contesting the provision for a number of reasons, including that it would be hard to find out if the employer is indeed a family member of the child laborer. In June 2017, India ratified the two core ILO Conventions regarding admission of age to employment (138), and on the worst forms of child labor (182).
While these are positive signs, the concern today is not over an absence of laws, but the lack of strict enforcement of the existing laws to deter perpetrators who exploit young women, girls, and children through trafficking and exploitative work conditions.
Civil society groups and activists have made a number of recommended next steps to help curb trafficking and forced labor of children in the garment sector supply chain, including:
- Stronger implementation of existing laws to prosecute fraudulent labor recruiters and employers of child labor.
- Investigate credible allegations of official complicity in trafficking, forced, and child labor, and prosecute officials to break the impunity of perpetrators.
- Enact new legislation on the lines of California Transparency Act of 2012 and the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 to improve supply chain traceability and transparency of the suppliers.
- Implement stronger outreach to communities to shift engrained cultural mindsets away from acceptance of child labor.
- Work in closer collaboration with all stakeholders in the supply chain, including contractors and suppliers, demand-side companies in other countries, trade unions, NGOs, and the child workers themselves.
In June 2016, India’s government announced a $937 million special package for the textile and apparel sector, aiming to create 10 million new jobs in the next three years and increase exports by $30 billion. The government is also planning to introduce a new National Textile Policy soon. This would be an ideal time for global businesses to employ leverage with their supply chains in India, and insist that the “Make in India Programme” could be jeopardized and stigmatized if child labor persists.
Ultimately, though, we the consumers will have to ask ourselves, “Where are our clothes coming from?”
This is part of a special series from the May 2017 “U.S.-ASEAN Conference on Legal Issues of Regional Importance” in Singapore, convened by The Asia Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Dr. Geeta Sekhon is a global consultant with the United Nations, specializing in trafficking and child rights. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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