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Child Labor: Hanes and Others Fight for Childhood

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Childhood—What is childhood? The most simple definition is a time of youth. TheFreeDictionary defines it as "the early stage of existence or development of something." Childhood, at its best, is actually a privilege, one which most mothers work fastidiously to preserve, guide, and encourage in their children. The luxury of enjoying play, of not knowing everything, of spending a lot of time in structured school, is something that many of us take for granted. Unfortunately, many countries in their childhood often create circumstances that take away that privilege for millions of their youngest citizens. Child labor is a practice still prevalent in many poor, developing countries today.

To preserve the stage of childhood in one's children, a mother or father may provide playtime, toys, friends, and fun learning opportunities, while their spouse works hard to enable them to stay home to do that. To preserve the childhoods of children in developing countries, where both moms and dads work outside the home for meager, insufficient wages, it takes the efforts of industry "parents" as well. These are companies that have factories in these countries, who help guide the development of local infrastructure and government, to align with globally-accepted proper business practices. Hanes, a leading textile industry company, with factories in many countries around the world, adopted rigorous Global Standards for Compliance after a sweatshop scandal involving Kathie Lee Gifford and Walmart over 15 years ago. Since then, they have fought child labor vigorously through an extensive compliance and monitoring process, in factories they own and with which they contract.

Says Chris Fox, Vice President of Hanes Brands Corporate Social Responsibility, "Our greatest challenge in maintaining compliance is working with less-developed countries that don't have a good infrastructure so that not everyone has a birth certificate." While Hanes does not disclose the number of factories they own or monitor, they do require a minimum working age of 15. They are a member affiliate of the Fair Labor Association, are independently accredited by the Worldwide Responsible Accreditation Program, and have a team of internal auditors that do both announced and unannounced factory visits.

Wikipedia reports that, according to UNICEF, there are an estimated 250 million children aged 5 to 14 in child labor worldwide. Because it is still a prevalent problem, companies like The Gap have also been forced to act, since a scandal in 2007 in which child laborers were found to be working in a facility with which they contracted.

You would think that child labor would be such an inherently abhorrent practice that its abolition would be forefront on the mind of every country. In theory, it is, since every country in the world (except the USA) has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In practice, however, it is more complicated than that. Says Thomas DeGregori, an economics professor at the University of Houston, in an article published by the Cato Institute, "It is clear that technological and economic change are vital ingredients in getting children out of the workplace and into schools. However, in poor countries like Bangladesh, working children are essential for survival in many families, as they were in our own heritage until the late 19th century. So, while the struggle to end child labour is necessary, getting there often requires taking different routes—and, sadly, there are many political obstacles." And economic obstacles as well. Hanes has factories primarily in developing countries out of necessity: "It's not even close to feasible [for us to only have factories in the U.S.]," says Mr. Fox.

So, perhaps it behooves us, as parents and consumers, to be aware of the countries in which the clothing we buy is made, and to support those companies and countries that act against child labor practices. In that small way, we may be able to help preserve the childhood of other children out there beside our own.

What are ways to fight for childhood? What steps can you take to create more awareness for child labor and to help put an end to it?

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