News Update

Shoe Industry Treads on Child Workers’ Rights

Posted November 1st 2010

Article published in the Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, October 31st, 2010

by Zack Gross

Our youngsters will be going door to door on Halloween, putting lots of “mileage” on their shoes in order to collect treats from neighbours. Little do the kids or their parents (us) know that many of our shoes are the product of exploited children toiling in Third World workshops. The UN’s International Labour Office (ILO) estimates that over 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries. Almost two-thirds of these child workers can be found in Asian factories, making items such as shoes, clothing, rugs and sports balls. The other one-third works in agricultural production in Africa and Latin America. Many of our foods and other everyday items are supplied by them at the cost of their health, education and human rights.

We commonly call these factories where shoes, rugs and clothing are made “sweatshops”. They predominate in Pakistan and India in South Asia and are characterized by very poor or no wages, no benefits, unhealthy working conditions, and abuse (verbal, physical and sexual). As young workers never make any money, never get any education, and are worked until they are physically spent, they are caught in a cycle of poverty from which they never emerge.

Child labour is most prevalent in the athletic shoe and sandal industry in South Asia. Although, as an example, the Indian constitution lays out fundamental rights for the protection of children and youth, enforcement is a challenge. While young people are not supposed to be allowed or forced to work in factories and mines or engaged in any hazardous employment, India has the largest number of urban and rural child workers in the world. The government acknowledges 17.5 million, but various research and child protection agencies peg the figure at 50 million or higher.

The footwear industry in India is ranked second in the world to that of China. Most production of sandals and athletic shoes is centred in small workshops, while fancier leather shoes are made in large factories. It is estimated that 25,000 children between the ages of ten and fifteen assemble these shoes, particularly gluing uppers to soles. They work in cramped, noisy, poorly lit and ventilated rooms and suffer from skin and breathing problems.

In fact, global health studies have indicated that resultant lung disease extends as far as cancer. Causes include the tanning and finishing chemicals in the leather dust, the glues and the polishes. Males seem to be affected more in their lungs and larynx while females more in their lungs and gall bladder. Neurological damage is also inflicted on labourers through the neurotoxins in the chemicals, resulting in functional regressions and even paralysis among workers.

Sewing by children in the shoe industry also results in puncture wounds from needles and cuts from sharp tools. Poor sanitation on site leads to infections. Poor illumination and ventilation leads to vision problems and headache. Skin exposure leads to dermatitis. Heavy work by young people with their fingers and wrists leads to carpal tunnel syndrome. Distress caused by the work they must do and the unending situation they find themselves in leads to psychological problems.

A long campaign has been waged by the ILO, along with UNICEF, Save the Children, Free the Children and others to have child labour guidelines enforced. However, a question often asked is what will happen to these children and their families if they are not “allowed” to work? Some make a little bit of money while others are working to pay off a family debt. Those who oppose child labour respond that they do not wish to inadvertently hurt the families of child workers. Rather, they see the need for regulation of their workplaces, work hours and working relationships, so that these children may earn a fair wage part of the day in safe conditions, while also having the opportunity to attend school and experience childhood the rest of the day.

As consumers, we can affect the rules of production of goods such as shoes. Not only do we need to be conscious of the exploitation of children in the industry, but we also need to be aware that we are paying a huge premium on athletic shoes, sometimes $200 or more per pair, while the cost of production is unfairly low. The consumer and the producer are being cheated! Fair trade shoes, clothing and sports balls are now in the marketplace in a limited way and, as has happened with other fair trade products, availability will grow as consumers become more aware. We can add our voice and our consumer power to put an end to child labour.

Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of forty international development organizations active in our province.

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This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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