New report identifies ways to mitigate child labor risks in the Turkish cotton sector
Companies and NGOs cooperate to trace cotton supply chain in run up to new Dutch Agreement to End Child Labor in Garment Supply Chains
Consumers around the world share the desire to know the clothing they purchase has been made by companies doing everything they can to ensure their products are free from human rights abuses, such as child labor. Yet garment manufacturing is a complex process, with varying child labor risks — many of which remain undetected and unaddressed — at each step of production.
To better understand these risks, a Dutch multi-stakeholder Working Group on Child Labor began working in 2015 to investigate the likelihood of finding child labor in the supply chains of garment companies doing business in the Netherlands. This working group – comprising Dutch sector organizations, garment companies, the Stop Child Labour (SCL) coalition, and UNICEF Netherlands – ultimately designed a pilot project to be implemented by additional partners to trace the garment and cotton supply chains of seven multinational companies sourcing from Turkey and selling in the Netherlands. Together with members of the working group, the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Turkey-based Development Workshop Cooperative (DW) carried out this project over the course of 2016.
The project team worked with seven garment brands: C&A, Coolinvestments, Du Pon & De Bruin, Just Brands, PVH, Varova Fashion Holding and WE Fashion to build a supply chain mapping model that identifies suppliers in deeper tiers of a company’s supply chain and child labor risks at each tier so that mitigation efforts can focus on specific areas of concern. Tracing the supply chain from garment to seed and documenting labor conditions along the way proved difficult.
“Confronting child labor in a complex, global garment industry is going to require that all commit to a collaborative supply chain mapping process that prioritizes trust and transparency,” said FLA President and CEO Sharon Waxman. “This pilot project shows that the challenges are real, and child labor and other violations may be embedded in company’s product unless there is concerted effort toward greater visibility and action deeper into all tiers of the supply chain.”
‘’Being one of the first multi-stakeholder projects of this kind, resulting in a public report with concrete recommendations for companies, this is an approach worth replicating,” said Stop Child Labour Coalition senior advocacy officer Gerard Oonk. “In the coming years we also hope to see the results on the ground with less children working in the cotton supply chain of companies and more children going to school.”
The researchers documented and reported on working conditions through four tiers of the supply chain – garment manufacturers (tier one), textile and spinning mills (tier two), ginning mills (tier three), and cotton farms (tier four). Beyond the first tier, researchers found that direct linkages to the participating brands were harder to corroborate due to frequent use of agents, and few documented or formalized business relationships. The scope of the project also excluded tracing the supply chains of first-tier sub-contractors.
In the final tier – the cotton farms – researchers documented instances of child labor, but these farms were not directly linked to cotton supplied for garments sold in the Netherlands by the participating brands. Visiting five medium-sized farms in the Şanlıurfa province in southeastern Turkey on the Syrian border, the team encountered Syrian refugee children and Turkish children working alongside relatives to increase family income. The team found that child labor was most prevalent in areas with little mechanization at the farm level, requiring cotton to be picked by hand.
“Our detailed research into all four tiers of the Turkish cotton and garment industry taught us a great deal about where and how the risks of child labor exist in the supply chain,” said DW Representative Ertan Karabıyık “With a combination of capital investment, increased government inspections, and an unwavering commitment by the companies, our pilot project team is confident that Dutch businesses and others are better positioned to begin tackling the issue of child labor deeper in the supply chain including the cotton supply chain in Turkey.”
“The Turkey cotton project is a good example and learning experience of what garment companies together with Dutch, international, and local organisations can take up and learn from each other as for a company alone it will be difficult to identify and address the risks deeper in the supply chain,” said Marijke Willemsen from WE Fashion. “Currently the working group on child labour is working on concrete plans to continue with a follow-up project in Turkey, as well as in South-India and Bangladesh where the focus will be more on Tier 2 and subcontractors.”
“For the companies, one of the main reasons to participate in this project was because of the cooperation with NGOs and other companies. Fortunately, we can say this multi-stakeholder cooperation has been a success and has taught us a lot,” said Femke den Hartog from sector organization INretail. “Joining forces and scaling up to gain leverage is the only way forward and this is one of the key elements of the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textiles (AGT) that was signed almost a year ago. By now approximately 65 companies have committed to the AGT and are working hard on their due diligence and setting priorities for their action plans.”
The Fair Labor Association promotes and protects workers’ rights and improves workplace conditions through collaboration between business, civil society, and colleges and universities. The FLA conducts transparent and independent monitoring to ensure that rigorous labor standards are upheld wherever FLA affiliates source their products, identifies root causes of non-compliances, and proposes solutions to workplace problems. The FLA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and maintains offices in Geneva and Shanghai.