Fletcher in the News

Extended Supply Chains Make Child Labor Hard to Monitor: Prof. Hamill

MSN Money

Kathleen Hamill, JD, MALD, Esq., is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School

Is cheap stuff worth child labor?

Sure, your new iPhone 5 is sweet. But would you like it so much if you knew parts of it were made by a child in China?

Unfortunately, that could be the case.

Last week, Apple announced it had found more than 100 cases of child labor in its supply chain in 2012, including one Chinese company that employed 74 children younger than 16.

Apple deserves kudos, though, for examining its supply chain and sharing the results publicly. If Apple hadn't told us, we might never have known.

A lot of companies fail to go this far. And that's a big reason that child labor is still so prevalent around the world. Children may have helped produce that cotton fabric in your shirt, the chocolate you love and the soccer balls your kids kick around on Saturdays.

Globally, about 215 million children between 5 and 14 work, 115 million of them in hazardous jobs, estimates the International Labor Organization. UNICEF believes nearly one in six children, ages 5 to 14, works. Child labor is most prevalent in agriculture, but it also appears to be common in consumer electronics and apparel production in China.

And child labor is only one of many ongoing worker abuses around the globe, says Kathleen Hamill, who teaches human rights courses at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Other kinds of abuse at foreign companies that produce cheap stuff for U.S. consumers include lousy pay, excessive unpaid overtime and dangerous working conditions. ...

...For nearly a century, soccer balls have been made in Sialkot, a section of Punjab in Pakistan. By the late 1990s, Pakistan was supplying about 75% of the world's soccer balls. The work is tough, since those little panels on the balls are hand stitched.

Back in the late 1990s, Adidas  and other companies that sell soccer balls came under fire when the International Labor Rights Forum called attention to rampant child labor used by subcontractors in Sialkot.

The issue cropped up again in 2008-09, said Hamill, who teaches human rights classes at Fletcher. "It's something the industry just can't seem to stomp out," she says. "With such an extended supply chain, it becomes difficult to monitor."

More recently, Adidas has come under fire for another employment controversy.

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