When I was 14, I really wanted a job. I wanted my own money for movies with friends, food, and ‘trendy’ mufti day outfits.

I did my first shift at a fast-food restaurant just shy of my 15th birthday and received $61.50 for about four hours of work. I was rich! As I’ve moved from job to job, I’ve studied, travelled, and saved for the future.

Udaya’s son also started working as a teenager. At 16, he left school and travelled 200km from his hometown, to work in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Family health problems and scarcity of work closer to home made it necessary.

‘I stopped my son’s school. There are so many members in the family. And education was expensive too,’ says Udaya.

Now 21, he has worked in the garment factory for five years.

‘There is huge suffering. He works seven days in a day and seven days at night. He needs to keep standing for twelve hours,’ Udaya says. ‘He tells me, “Mother, my legs are paining and the whole body is paining.”’

All of us are made in God’s image, but so many don’t experience his vision of life filled with dignity and wellbeing. While some children experience the innocence and opportunity of childhood, others grow up knowing vulnerability, exploitation, and fear.

2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour and 152 million, or one in ten children are currently in child labour around the world. We need to do better in caring for those trapped in such horrific circumstances.

Harmful Work

Apart from both working as teenagers, my story doesn’t have much in common with Udaya’s son’s experience. Child labour is distinct from work like an after-school job, defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as ‘any work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.’ 

I was fortunate to be born in a wealthy country, to a family that could support me while I studied and worked part-time, and I now have a career that allows me to live comfortably. Children sent to work in child labour, conversely, typically do so because of family poverty – for every one percent increase to poverty rates, child labour increases by around 0.7 percent.  In the short-term child labour may be necessary for a family’s survival. But in the long-term it perpetuates the poverty cycle by depriving children of the education that could create better opportunities for their future. 

One possible solution is projects that help families toward sustainability. Baptist World Aid Australia’s Christian partner in Bangladesh, for instance, has supported Udaya with chickens and goats, eggs and milk to sell for income. She has also developed the skills to save some of the money she and her husband earn. Her younger children plan to finish their education, something their older brother couldn’t do.

Significant global efforts like this have reduced child labour by 38 percent since 2000, impacting nearly 100 million children.  But COVID-19 has massively slowed progress, threatening to increase global poverty rates for the first time in a decade. According to ILO estimates, up to 800 million children will never return to school due to work or marriage, with girls particularly at-risk.

At current rates 121 million children will be in child labour in 2025 – the year the world aims to have rid the world of child labour entirely. 

Child Labour – In Fashion?

Child labour rates are highest in the Asia-pacific and Africa, where most fashion supply chains operate. Despite this, complex and closely guarded clothing supply chains and a belief that ‘it won’t happen in our factories’ mean too many companies don’t have systems in place to detect child labour. Those that do rarely have adequate processes to address it properly.

But the bigger problem lies in the standards companies set when they place an order and negotiate a price for their products. The fashion industry is in a never-ending race to the bottom, and every brand is looking for the cheapest price and the shortest production time. These ‘purchasing practices’ have major ramifications for every person in the supply chain. They can drive factories to target workers like children – workers who are largely unaware of their labour rights and vulnerable to being coerced and threatened to work excessive hours in dangerous conditions for low pay. Children are also preferred for some intricate tasks such as spinning, embroidery and cotton picking due to their small hands.

Better Options

Every day, multimillion dollar companies espouse the virtues of corporate social responsibility, tout biodegradable packaging and organic linen products, and then turn around and negotiate another discount.

Rather than focusing only on the image of Udaya’s son in a factory, we need to consider the bigger picture. No, a child shouldn’t have made the cheap top I bought with my fast-food earnings as a teenager. But what really shouldn’t be happening is families experiencing such vulnerability that their only choice is to send their child to work, or a factory being squeezed so much by a company that they turn to exploitative practices like child labour.

As a consumer who wants to buy clothing that wasn’t produced with child labour, I need the fashion brands I love to recognise that they are directly responsible for workers employed in their factories. I need them to use responsible purchasing practices that ensure factories can offer adult workers a living wage and stable, secure employment. Millions of children could be removed from the fields, mines, and factory floors they’re working in, but child labour will not be eradicated while companies continue to encourage it to thrive.

At the same time, we cannot cease our efforts to address the root causes of poverty. Baptist World Aid, the Christian aid and development organisation where I now work supports local partners in Bangladesh. Attending their child club is helping Udaya’s children understand what they should experience in childhood. But our partner’s savings and skills training ensure this becomes a reality by supporting parents to generate an income that lets their children stay children. Udaya’s son has experienced one of the worst forms of exploitation there is because of poverty, poor business practices and lack of opportunities; but Kakoli, her youngest, can play with her friends and reads outside of school. She hopes to become a teacher one day.