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Child Labour – Unfair Trade Creates Unsustainable Monoculture Economies

February 18, 2009

Your shirt off their backs


Women in traditional dress stand in a cotton field in Uzbekistan in 2003. Despite laws against child labour, children often help pick the crop for export, according to UNICEF.

In a restaurant, we overheard a common exchange. “Nice shirt,” said one patron. “Where’s it from?”

The fashionista offered a store name. We returned to our meals.

The question lingered.

Where’s it from? Not just this shirt. Any shirt. Look at your own label. Where’s it from?

Chances are it went through numerous hands before ending up on your back. That’s where the question takes new meaning. Where’s it from? And, who’s it from?

In the beginning, there was a child.

Crouched in a field in Uzbekistan, that child is most likely contributing to the primary industry of the second-largest cotton exporter in the world. Not because he wants to. Because he has to.

When cotton makes up 60 per cent of his country’s export earnings, everyone is expected to pitch in. Through school closures and campaigns encouraging loyalty to the president and the country, the government sends children to the fields. In 2000, UNICEF estimated 22.6 per cent of kids aged 5 to 14 were harvesting the cotton. Some were given plastic water bottles filled with pesticide to spray on the crop.

The most fortunate child gets 3 cents for every kilogram picked – a kilogram worth $1.15 on the world market

The Uzbek government maintains that no child labour exists in their country. Still, come September, rather than heading to class, the children diligently pick the cotton, pack it up and ship it off.

Most countries that grow cotton – places like Uzbekistan – don’t have their own textile industries. So, the t-shirt continues on its journey from the hands of a child to a manufacturer in China.

There, in massive factories the size of multiple football fields, machines spin the cotton into yarn while looms weave the soft fibre into fabric. It’s a practice that used to belong to skilled craftsmen – artisans who took pride in delicately creating the fabric. Today, labourers paid cheap wages produce the cloth at discounted prices before passing it on to a woman in Bangladesh.

There, cotton textile manufacturing is king. About 4,000 garment factories fill the capital of Dhaka and employ 2.5 million people, mostly women.

The woman making our t-shirt arrives at work at 5 a.m. and spends 13 hours at her sewing machine. She is surrounded by younger workers, some under the legal working age of 13, who hem her seams and finish the item off.

The woman makes about $25 monthly – the government-mandated minimum wage – barely enough to afford food and her squalid living conditions.

Still, she works without complaint. In fact, her fear is that conditions get better. The company might leave Bangladesh for a place with more lenient laws. If that happens, she would face unemployment, hunger and potentially prostitution to keep her family afloat.

So, she finishes the t-shirt and passes it on for its journey across the Pacific. Into the hands of dockworkers, the shirt is loaded into 40-foot shipping containers and sent to North America

Into the back of a tractor-trailer, then it’s driven across the country to your local mall. It is unloaded and placed on a rack by a teenager.

That teen likely gets minimum wage, ranging from $7.75 per hour in New Brunswick to $8.75 in Ontario.

From there, the item is bought – one of about 1.4 billion cotton t-shirts sold annually in North America. It’s pulled over your head. It’s thrown in the wash.

It begs the question, “Where’s it from?”

The short answer would be the store in the mall. But the short answer neither tells us the whole story nor makes us informed consumers.

T-shirts don’t just magically appear on hangers. Chances are they’ve crossed more borders than you.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays – take part in the discussion online

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