Economic Crisis Boosts Child Labor Concerns

A series of allegations this month against both China and Chinese-based factories that supply Nike and Disney lend weight to previous warnings from the international rights community that the global economic crisis would result directly in human rights abuses — particularly in terms of child labor. Advocates caution that the Chinese examples are merely a snapshot of a much larger problem unfolding across the globe.

Ethical Corporation claimed that China’s adherence to the worker-friendly provisions of its’ own labor laws extends little further than public-relations concerns necessitate. It also accused local and provincial governments of telling business and factory owners they may freely circumvent the law as long as they do not fire workers outright or pursue layoffs. Like much of the rest of the world, China is battling growing unemployment figures, and with an estimated 7.1 million college graduates about to enter the workforce, officials appear eager to avoid any associated social upheaval.

According to allegations reported by Radio Free Asia, a supplier factory for Nike in southeastern China is employing underage workers in direct violation of Nike’s existing code of conduct, which requires that no individual under the age of 18 produce company footwear. The allegations center around a systematic forging of identity documents to make young girls eligible for work. In a separate incident, a 17-year-old died in April at a stationary factory producing products for Disney, according to rights monitor China Labor Watch, after the company had audited the factory. Disney guarantees safe working conditions.

The issue of child labor associated with major international brands is one that has plagued China, and nearby India, since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, in the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the state itself sends children into the fields for annual crop harvests.

SOS Children’s Villages warnsthat children in South America, Asia and Africa are being forced by economic conditions to “work locally, on the streets, in bars, restaurants, construction sites or farms. Or, they may migrate to other parts of the country in search of work to support their families.” Estimates of children working around the globe vary wildly, reaching as high as 125 million.

Debate surrounding the issue pits unfortunate economic necessities and tradition against (mostly Western) ideas of what a just society should look like. But the terrifying realities of bonded or forced labor and human trafficking also play a role. As long as the underlying causes that drive families to put their children to work — or worse, sell them into disastrous situations — fail to be addressed, true progress is likely to remain elusive.