Each year, factories, fields, and workshops around the world see about 215 million children ages 5 to 17 engaged in child labor, estimates the International Labor Union (ILO). While most of this is on the farm, a significant number of children spend their childhoods churning out mass-market (and high-end) clothing for import to the West.
The U.S. Department of Labor, touring the global economy’s factories and back-alley workshops from China to Africa, found children "work[ing" in locked shops, with armed guards preventing entrance and exit during work hours," laboring as much as six or seven days a week for subsistence wages and no overtime. Tasks range from sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, folding, moving, packing garments, to more hazardous and deadly activities.
While conditions are not always so grim—sweatshops are even seen as a route out of poverty for those at the very bottom of the economic ladder—"eliminating child labor … could generate economic benefits nearly seven times greater than the costs, mostly associated with investment in better schooling and social services," reports the ILO. Not to mention, the morality of using children in poor countries to cheaply manufacture goods for rich ones.
Now you can do your part. A new browser plug-in, aVOID, screens your online shopping for products associated with the exploitation of children. It works with all major online shops (including Amazon, although I found results were inconsistent) by replacing the search results for companies linked to child-labor issues (American Apparel, it turns out) with a hand icon indicating "stop." You can turn it off to see unfiltered results.
Sponsored by the German group EarthLink, the app uses data from the Active Against Child Labour campaign, an initiative funded by the German government among others, ranking manufacturers according to their child labor violations and commitment to avoid child labor (sometimes companies just have poor controls in place).
So far, the plug-in has screened out about 1.2 million products for shoppers. EarthLink thinks it will inject information about child labor into a marketplace where it is almost completely missing. Once companies’ culpability is visible, they can start to "change their philosophy, integrate a code of conduct, monitor their suppliers and exclude child labor rapidly," says Nikoletta Pagiati of EarthLink.
"Most people think, that cheap products are made by child labor," says Pagiati by email. "But there are a lot of high prized products—luxury brands—which are made by child labor, too. Consumers really have the power to influence and control great companies so that they are forced to change their corporate responsibility. This is already happening."