Cancelling Zara Will Not End Child Labor

Updated: Nov 14

There are innate characteristics of childhood that, whenever exposed to poverty, have transformed children into manipulable and cheap productivity tools. Since the Industrial Revolution, the mental and psychological vulnerability of children has been used to indoctrinate them into unethical labor practices. This has since enabled the emergence of child exploitation as a critical pillar for the survival of individuals living below poverty, to the extent that it has even become culturally embraced in different regions of the world.

Child labor is an issue that transcends our political divides. As a result, most media and politicians have increasingly advocated for the regulation and dissolution of corporations and industries that thrive on the manual exploitation of children. They have effectively shed a light on the underlying cruelty of child exploitation and bolstered some change. However, by advocating for the over regulation of such practices, they have failed to acknowledge that child labor enables underprivileged families to avoid other structural inequities, to the extent that it is now even supported by cultural values and tradition.

We must open our eyes and realize that the present narrative of child labor is based on disproportional information and disregards the primary perpetrators. Modern fashion industry giants are frequently criticized for their unethical supply networks using child laborers; yet the garment industry is a minor contributor to the problem. According to the ILO, more than two thirds of cases of child labor occur in the agricultural sector; in fact, the garment industry is the only non-agricultural industry among the top 10 industries that rely most on child labor. In other words, neither the media nor civil society have a real grasp on the main drives and implications of child labor.

If we hope to build an effective strategy to combat child labor, we need to focus our attention on Sub-Saharan Africa – the region with the highest number of child laborers.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, around 26 percent of children aged from 5 to 17 are informally employed. It is also the ‘only region in the world where the rural population will continue to grow after 2050.’ Following that logic, if we consider the industries that rely the most on child exploitation in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of them profit from the extraction of resources in rural areas. Thus, rather than settling with blacklisting these industries on Twitter, we must go beyond and explore the correlation between living in agriculturally based regions and the likelihood of falling victim to manual exploitation at a young age.

The scarcity of education in the region is a major factor behind the prevalence of child labor in rural Sub-Saharan Africa. As stated by the United Nations ‘Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of education exclusion globally,’ with more than 60 percent of youth aged 15 to 17 not enrolled in school, most of which are concentrated in rural communities. This is due to improper school structures, limited educational centers and political instability, with around 30 percent of the region suffering from active armed conflict. Children have been deprived from learning basic skills and from developing cognitive abilities, instead turning to manual labor to finance their families’ and their own needs.

Early pregnancies are also common in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, worsening the educational crisis and increasing the number of children in the workforce. Both West and Central Africa have ‘the highest adolescent birth rates worldwide.’ Even more disturbing is the fact that nearly 60% of women in the region over the age of 45 become single mothers. The majority of these women work in low-wage informal employment, which forces their children to become the primary source of money through manual labor.

Yet, in Sub-Saharan Africa, around 70 percent of women and men over the age of 60 are still in the workforce. Essentially the chances of financial stability in some regions across the world are so low that not only do children need to enter the workforce, but elderly workers also need to abstain from retiring. In places where child labor prevails, so do many other labor injustices – all of which are sustained by the need to survive.

Regardless of whether Zara or SheIn are prosecuted for hiring children laborers, if economic stability is not promoted through improved education, access to credit, and sexual education, children will keep on finding themselves working for a way out.

In creating a narrative of child labor that fails to demonize the main industries and disregards the core causes, public opinion is also ignoring cultural and demographic trends that support and glorify the practice. Consider, for example, the lawsuit filed against Nestle for hiring children in the Ivory Coast, to which the company responded that the litigation would not further the goal of abolishing child labor in the cocoa sector. While it is obvious that players like Nestle have established empires on the backs of neglected children, their statement describes a sad reality.

As in most Sub-Saharan African nations, the average lifespan in Ivory Coast is between 50 and 60 years. A lack of effective health care and disease control protocols continues to lower life expectancy rates in these countries, making it nearly impossible to accumulate wealth without a young start. Consequently, many countries, including but not limited to the Ivory Coast, have developed cultures and systems that rely largely on early and continuous pregnancies. Today, the average age of a woman's first birth in Sub-Saharan Africa is 19, and she is expected to give birth to between four and five children.

The media and public opinion also continue to disregard that more than 70 percent of child labor globally occurs within the family unit. When I read this, I could not help but recall a story told by a friend of mine about their travels to a Sub-Saharan country, during which they visited the stores of family-owned businesses. There, they observed young boys no older than eight skillfully weaving gigantic carpets. The proprietor, who was used to tourists studying these children, said that they were not employees but rather "young trainees interested in learning the profession." However, he failed to explain that these traineeships are unpaid, keep the children out of school, and put them at risk of extreme long-term physical damage.

What they experienced is not unique to the country nor the region; I have witnessed similar situations in Egypt, Mexico, China, India, Peru, and the United States. In agricultural and textile-based communities, it is common for children to serve as unpaid trainees, many times within their own family unit. Still, the media and public opinion have struggled to address the dishonesty and outdated nature of apprenticeships for young children, as well as the fact that they serve as socially acceptable lenses for child labor.

Beyond the existence of traineeships, child labor is supported by other social values, such as rejection of Western-style education. For instance, nine of the top ten most difficult countries for girls to receive an education are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the notion that girls do not require an education is prevalent. Instead, young women are subjected to arranged marriages as a method of wealth accumulation and procreation.

To make things worse, most children born from such unions are undocumented. According to UNICEF, around 95 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa have not had their births registered. Indeed, more than 370 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa reside in nations where birth registration is subject to costs that most families cannot afford. As a result, several local criminal organizations have been able to construct intricate trafficking rings that benefit from the sale of unregistered children who cannot be traced or even proven to exist.

This article is not intended to belittle the struggle against child labor. On the contrary, I empathize with the victims of child exploitation, who are deprived of the most formative years of their lives. Indeed, it is heartbreaking to see millions of children stripped from any chance to realize their professional, spiritual, and individual goals, which is why I believe in reforming the approach we have chosen to tackle child labor.

Children are the vessel through which older generations pass on customs, resources, and knowledge; nevertheless, we must adopt more sustainable practices and educational methods that do not compromise their growth.

If we are to successfully combat the problem, it is imperative that we understand three inalienable facts. First, we must acknowledge that child labor is a need for many individuals; by over-regulating companies that benefit from hiring children while ignoring the root causes, we are only depriving kids of the means to escape other systematic inequalities. Second, we have to redirect our attention to the agricultural sector, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where child labor thrives. While it is true that we must hold the apparel industry accountable, we have to educate the public on the higher chance of rural children engaging in manual labor. Lastly, we must recognize that child labor has been culturally accepted in some parts of the world owing to poverty and gender inequality.

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About the author:

I am opposed to the concept of absolute truth and write to question what I see,

hear, and learn. I am a traveler, a bookworm, and a political junkie

driven by social responsibility and a deep respect for nature.


  • drawing by@pius.ko

Hashtags: #childlabor #subsaharanafrica #education #childrensrights #agriculture #womenempowerment

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