KUALA LUMPUR – Four years ago, the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh pulled back the curtain on the employment practices of the global apparel industry. We had hoped that the tragedy, which killed more than 1,100 workers – the deadliest accident in the industry's history – would have brought meaningful change to a business long left to its own devices. Unfortunately, our research suggests the opposite has happened.
Media reports highlight the industry's ongoing transgressions in Bangladesh, in particular the persistent reliance on child labor. In 2014, the British current-affairs program Exposure found evidence of children as young as 13 working in factories (often under harsh conditions) producing clothes for retailers in the United Kingdom. Another undercover report by CBS News interviewed a 12-year-old girl who obtained a factory job using a certificate that falsified her age. And journalists from The Australian Women's Weekly found girls as young as ten stitching clothes for top Australian brands.
While the media reports are troubling, they do not provide the entire picture. How many minors and adolescent girls are employed overall in factory jobs? More important, should they be barred from such jobs entirely?
Access to factories is restricted, and most employees will not disclose their actual age in the workplace. Indeed, journalists often mask their identity to document abuses. We took a different approach to assess the prevalence of underage workers in the garment industry, and to determine the sector's value to Bangladeshi society.
As part of a recent nationwide census, we collected data from thousands of mothers and girls in Bangladesh's three industrial districts with the highest concentration of ready-made garment factories (particularly those operating outside the Export Processing Zones): Ashulia, Gazipur, and Narayanganj. The majority of the country's female garment workers are concentrated in these areas. For comparison, we also carried out interviews in 58 urban areas where garment factories are not located.
During our research, we identified 3,367 women and girls in the survey areas who reported being employed in the apparel industry. Of them, 3% were between the ages of ten and 13, and 11% were 14-17 years old. Of the 861 girls below the age of 18 who were engaged in any kind of work, 28% said they worked in the garment industry.
Based on this evidence, it would appear that Bangladesh's garment factories are using child labor (particularly that of young girls) more pervasively than even the most sensational media reports suggest. But for us, the real question is whether this practice should be eradicated or reformed.
Global brands relying on cheap labor have promised eradication. In 1992, about 10% of the garment sector's workforce was below the age of 14. The following year, after the introduction of the Child Labor Deterrence Act in the United States – the so-called Harkin Bill, which barred US imports of products made with child labor – some 50,000 underage workers were removed from the factory floor. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has pledged to phase out child labor and put children back in school – female school enrollment is typically lower in areas of high garment-industry employment than in other areas – upholding a 2010 law prohibiting employment of children under 14.
Clearly, our data suggest that the industry's promises have yet to be fulfilled (though the government of Bangladesh claims that there currently is "no child labor" in garment processing units).
But that may not be entirely bad for underage female workers in Bangladesh. Thanks to pressure on garment manufacturers in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, the industry's minimum wage was increased 77%, to $68 a month. This has made it more attractive for young girls to take up paid employment in the sector, which, paradoxically, does have some social benefit.
The majority of young girls who are working in Bangladesh are from poor families. Even in garment manufacturing areas, relatively better-off families rarely send their daughters to work in factories. Although recent initiatives have lowered the cost of schooling for girls (through cash stipends and the elimination of school fees), many young women still drop out of secondary school, even without the opportunity to engage in paid work. That often leaves girls with one option: marriage. And in a country where minimum marriage-age laws are rarely implemented, earning a paycheck is the best way to avoid a premature wedding day.
In such a situation, when many young girls must choose between factory work and marrying young, banning factory employment for girls under 18 would do more harm than good. To help young girls avoid this choice, and to reduce the presence of minors and young girls in factories, requires greater emphasis on poverty reduction in rural areas.
Bangladesh's garment industry is expected to quadruple in size over the next two decades, attracting millions more female workers, young and old, to the production floor. According to our estimates, one of every ten of these new employees will be between 10-17 years of age.
Consumers around the world reject clothing stitched by child labor, which is commendable. Children under 18 should be in school and learning important life skills, not working long hours under difficult conditions. But the lessons from the 2013 tragedy at Rana Plaza are more complicated than much of the international media make them out to be. The garment industry does need to reform; but, for the time being, if women and girls are not to suffer needlessly again, promising to eradicate child labor may not be the right answer.
M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, and Visiting Fellow at the Center on Skills, Knowledge, and Organization Performance (SKOPE) at the University of Oxford. Zaki Wahhaj is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent.
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