Three decades ago, Indian labour activist Kailash Satyarthi used to spend his days co-ordinating surprise swoops on sweatshops and stone quarries, discovering and then attempting to liberate hundreds of illegally employed child labourers. Then he changed strategy.
In 1994, he set up GoodWeave. With operations in India, Nepal and Afghanistan, his Washington-based certification body has a sole mission: to rid the region’s handmade carpet industry of abusive practices against underage workers.
GoodWeave’s model centres on extensive monitoring and auditing at every stage of the supply chain, with successful manufacturers entitled to a consumer seal. Rugs carrying the seal comprise 5% of the North American and European handmade rug import market, which is worth about $600m (£400m) annually.
It is one of the few labels of its kind to promote anti-child labour, but is it working? Nina Smith, executive director of GoodWeave USA, insists it is. Child labour is fundamentally a product of market demand, she says. Consumers want cheap products, and illegally employing children – often in highly dangerous conditions, with minimal or no pay – helps manufacturers drive down costs.
“By raising awareness of child labour and campaigning to get consumers to choose child labour-free products, you can get to the root of the problem,” says Smith.
Yet, despite rigorous monitoring and auditing throughout its supply chain, the record of GoodWeave’s certified producers is far from clean. Since starting, about 3,700 underage workers have been identified and “rescued” from factories and workshops supplying the GoodWeave brand.
Smith is frank about the issue. To offer consumers a guarantee that their products are not tainted with abusive practices against children “wouldn’t be honest”. Hence, the wording of the GoodWeave label: “The best assurance that no child labour was used in the making of your rug”. Strong, but not as strong as “child-labour free”.
Are cast-iron guarantees possible?
Labour activists admit that the complexity of modern supply chains makes assurances difficult, but many believe auditing systems fall short of their potential.
“A lot of advocates have talked about child labour-free labels over the years but the amount of resources required to do it are really extreme [and] companies just don’t want to put in the money,” says Reid Maki, spokesperson for the US-based Child Labour Coalition.
Maki, who points out that audits of factories and farms are infrequent and sometimes pre-announced, is sceptical that large companies are spending as much as they claim on combating child labour. He cites the case of international cocoa buyers in Ivory Coast, where more than half of the children in cocoa-growing areas work in the fields. Research by Tulane University in the US shows that the cocoa industry would need to invest $46m to meet its 2010 objective of certifying 100% of cocoa-growing areas. By the end of that year, it had reached a mere 2.54%.
Antonie Fountain, director of Stop the Traffik Netherlands and a child labour specialist, takes a more moderate stance. However comprehensively companies audit their supply chains, certification can only ever be a “first step” towards combating child labour.
“Everything that gets sourced from a very low-income country will – for the reason that it is a very low-income country – have problems at the bottom of the supply chain,” he says.
Certification can go only so far to resolving this, he adds. Can it ensure that checks are in place and reduce the possibility of offences against underage workers happening? Yes. Can it ensure no such offences happen? No.
“There are no absolute guarantees in this because as long as people are willing to outsource their labour to very low-wage countries, and unless consumers are willing to pay more, then these kind of transgressions are likely to happen,” he says.
A telling example is the Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely. The company was set up to show that manufacturing a 100% slavery-free product was possible. Yet on-package labelling to that effect landed the firm in court under false advertising claims. Although the judge dismissed the charges, stating that the company had provided every reasonable assurance it could, Tony’s Chocolonely opted to change its messaging. The brand’s products now say: “On the way to 100% slavery-free chocolate.”