No business wants to be associated with child labour. It’s not, as the marketing department would put it, good for the brand. But as many of our favourite goods are produced in poor countries where child labour is rife, this is a risk that many major businesses face. Just ask Apple.
It might seem odd then that fast fashion big beasts Next and H&M have admitted they found Syrian child refugees working in supplier factories in Turkey. Before you rush off to grab your placard and megaphone, this is not an expose, and nor is it a cause to boycott these stores. Next and H&M – both of which put an end to the child labour when they found it and made efforts to help the children and families involved - were just being honest.
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) asked 28 firms in January whether they had found Syrian child labour in their Turkish supplier factories, and what they were doing about the problem. Only Next and H&M said yes (see the full report here) - and were praised by the report authors for their efforts to avoid it happening again.
This is not to say the others found child labour and hid it, but it does show H&M and Next to be admirably mature and open about a problem that, by their own admission, isn’t entirely under their own control.
Fast fashion will always struggle with child labour because its business model depends on producing clothes cheaply, quickly and in very large quantities in countries where labour rights and policing standards aren’t as high as they are here. Without resorting to behaviour that belongs in the Gestapo CSR manual 1943 (think dawn raids, paid informants and ‘ways of making you talk’), it’s hard in the real world for companies to control everything that their suppliers and their suppliers’ suppliers do.
This does not absolve European or American firms from their duty to monitor and hold business partners to account – we may not approve of supermarkets bullying suppliers, but if the same tactics stop vulnerable eight year-olds being forced to work in sweat shops instead of going to school, then so be it. But it does mean that it’s not easy.
H&M has 850 suppliers worldwide. Next has 510, using 1,810 factory sites. In 2014, it conducted 1,945 audits and dropped 12 suppliers as a result of what it found. Both firms have codes of conduct that suppliers must sign, and report regularly on the progress of their swollen CSR departments.
How do we know this? Because they publish this information. H&M even has a 25-point plan to improve the ethics of its supply chain, against which it gives itself a school report-style score – done, on track or need to do more.
Maintaining this unusual level of transparency is one of the most important things these firms can do to tackle child labour. As the scandals that have beset the likes of the BBC, the Catholic Church or indeed (allegedly) FIFA have shown, if organisations are scared of admitting a problem, then the tendency will be to sweep it under the carpet, which does no one any good.