Apparel and Footwear

This section focuses on the issues that are most likely to pose risks of child rights impacts for the apparel and footwear industry. This is not an exhaustive list but a selection of the key risks. For an overview of risks and recommended mitigation, please refer to documents listed under tools and guidance.

  • Workplace

    Child labour
    Child labour has long been a concern in the apparel and footwear supply chain. According to the ILO, there are 152 million children aged 5-17 in child labour in the world, 12% of whom work in industry, often in connection with global supply chains. The root causes of child labour are linked to poverty, and the industry’s broader human rights impacts (such as low wages). This emphasises the need for companies to identify and address their broader impacts on children’s rights in order to address the root causes of child labour. There has been a strong emphasis on addressing child labour in export-orientated factories. However, there are risks of child labour in less visible areas and deeper tiers of the supply chain, including in informal sub-contracting, fabric production and cotton farming.

    Young workers
    The hiring of adolescents (aged 15-17) under hazardous conditions is a significant concern in apparel and footwear manufacturing. According to the ILO, nearly half of all child labour involves hazardous conditions, and 24% of child labour is performed by adolescents aged 15-17 years. Many suppliers to multinational buyers have strict zero tolerance policies for workers under 18, and work in apparel and footwear factories can often be hazardous. However, adolescents may present false identity documents to obtain employment due to lack of educational opportunities and age-appropriate work. Adolescents may also work in the informal sector, which can be connected to the supply chain through unauthorised sub-contracting.

    Decent working conditions
    Working conditions in the apparel and footwear supply chain are characterised by low wages and long hours. Low wages can mean that working parents are less able to provide an adequate standard of living. Low wages are linked with poor nutrition and limited access to basic services for children. Minimum wages, and sometimes living wage benchmarks, too often consider only the cost of living for individual workers without considering costs of supporting dependent children. Low wages can in turn fuel long hours, as workers can become dependent on extra income from overtime to cover living expenses. However, long hours can limit the time parents have to spend with their children, which can hinder childhood development, and in some cases can put children at risk of neglect and violence due to lack of parental supervision.

    Maternity protections
    Paid maternity leave is important to ensuring that women recover from childbirth and have time to bond with and breastfeed infants, which is crucial to early childhood nutrition. However, according to the ILO, 830 million working women globally, mostly in Africa and Asia, are not entitled to adequate maternity benefits Maternity leave is also crucial to gender empowerment in the workplace, providing working mothers with job security and reliable income. Gaps in maternity protections can have severe consequences for child and maternal health, particularly where women do not benefit from an adequate period of paid maternity leave to recover from child birth and to breastfeed their young infants.

    Limited access to childcare
    UNICEF’s research suggests that limited access to childcare is too often a challenge faced by working parents in the apparel and footwear supply chain. In some sourcing countries, laws require factories to provide childcare facilities. However, factory-based facilities can be under-utilised where parents do not trust the quality of care or due to practical obstacles such as lack of child-friendly transport. In industrial areas, there can be a lack of community-based childcare infrastructure. Available facilities can also be prohibitively expensive, or operating hours may not fit around workers’ schedule. Access to good quality childcare is critical for early childhood development, and for working parents to ensure that their children are in a safe environment during the working day.

    Health, nutrition and WASH
    Poor health and nutrition of pregnant workers and working parents is another key concern in the apparel and footwear industry. Workers in the garment and footwear sector can be prone to energy deficiencies and anaemia, due to long working hours and lack of nutritious diets. Pregnant workers and working mothers may also struggle to obtain paid time off to attend pre- and post-natal health checkups. Maternal health and nutrition is extremely important to child health; maternal malnutrition and anaemia contribute to up to 50% of childhood stunting. Gaps in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) standards in the workplace can also affect the health of pregnant workers, working mothers, and young workers. Easily preventable water-related diseases, such as diarrhoea, are spread through limited access to clean toilets and soap for handwashing.

    Case study - Vietnam

    To improve the wellbeing of children, working parents and young workers in the apparel and footwear industry, UNICEF has partnered with eleven factories in Vietnam’s apparel and footwear industry to launch the Children’s Rights in the Workplace Programme for Footwear and Apparel Manufacturers. The project is supported by the Vietnam Chambers of Commerce and Industry. As part of the initial activities, factories will undergo awareness raising sessions on the ways in which children are affected by business activities and workplace practices. UNICEF will also roll out an awareness raising campaign – “60 minutes working as a mother” – to increase awareness on breastfeeding in workplace among workers and to encourage management to better support breastfeeding workers with dedicated facilities.

  • Marketplace

    Product safety
    Children’s health and safety can be compromised when apparel and footwear products contain hazardous, flammable fabrics or harmful chemicals. Clothing with drawstrings, cords and hoods can cause accidents involving young children. Decorations such as buttons could be a choking hazard. Many countries have set regulations for children’s clothing safety and have a list of prohibited hazardous materials. However, these may not always be respected or well enforced in practice. Companies should therefore ensure that their internal quality assurance and product safety compliance systems adequately consider risks to children.

    Advertising and marketing
    Adolescents are often targeted by clothing and footwear brands because of the amount of money they have to spend, and the influence they have on their parents spending (the ‘nag factor’). Apparel and footwear brands can be incredibly influential on adolescents in creating or reinforcing stereotypes through the promotion of their products. The apparel industry in particular has been most closely associated with gender stereotyping in the marketing of clothing, and at times sexualisation of children in the design and marketing of clothing.

  • Community and Environment

    Child protection in communities
    Impacts on children do not end in the workplace. As a result of low wages and rapid urbanisation, apparel and footwear workers and their families can live in over-crowded areas where children may be denied safe environments to thrive and develop. In these environments, workers’ children, particularly young girls, can be at risk of exploitation and abuse. This risk is particularly acute when parents work long hours and children have limited supervision during the working day.

    Access to basic services (education, healthcare and WASH)
    UNICEF research suggests that limited access to education is a key concern for workers’ children, due to limited availability and high costs. Workers’ children are likely to experience limited access to education, particularly where there is no free universal education, and where schooling costs are high relative to wages. Children may be compelled to drop out of school at an early age where there is limited childcare, to care for younger siblings, which puts them at risk of child labour. Particularly where factories are located in industrial areas, planning deficiencies can result in an inadequate supply of housing and social infrastructure (e.g. schools, hospitals). Clean water and improved sanitation can also be lacking, which increases the risk of preventable water-related diseases, such as diarrhoea. Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old. Factories’ high water usage can contribute to falling groundwater levels, which disproportionately affects children in poor urban communities. It can cause water shortages and increased pumping costs, which forces individuals to resort to alternative, more expensive sources of water.

    Pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals
    Children are particularly vulnerable to air and water pollution, which is a significant concern in the apparel and footwear manufacturing process. The use of boilers, thermo packing facilities and diesel generators can release pollutants into the air. For example, in China, textile factories produce about three billion tons of soot, which is linked to respiratory and heart disease. Studies suggest that Some studies suggest that the treatment and dyeing of textiles is responsible for up to 20% of industrial water pollution globally, including through the emission of 72 toxic chemicals reaching the water supply from textile dyeing. Exposure to harmful chemicals can be particularly harmful for children, as they are still developing. Such chemicals include nonylphenol ethoxylates (rinsing and finishing) and perfluorinated chemicals (waterproof and stainproof garments). These chemicals can affect growth and development, reproduction, and injure the liver. Without strict environmental laws, these chemicals may be dumped into local waterways without treatment, affecting communities near factories and industrial areas.