Your Soft Cotton T-Shirt Might Have Come Courtesy of Child Slave Labor

The textile tops the list of goods most likely to be produced by kids.

(Photo: Courtesy ManusherJonno.org)

Dec 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Television and magazine advertisements would have us believe that a soft cotton T-shirt or dress is merely a fluffy delight in a Zooey Deschanel–style manic pixie dream girl existence. But according to the most recent List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, the luxurious touch and feel of the textile is more likely to come from the backbreaking efforts of pint-size workers than any other product in the world.

The report comes from the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. It details 136 products—from Christmas decorations fashioned in China to cocoa and coffee produced in Sierra Leone—that are produced by forced child labor.

Cotton production from kids is the norm in at least 18 countries, including nations that are famous for their production of the material, such as Egypt and India. The report's authors found that it's more common to find tots who are compelled to pick cotton in a field or weave it into fabric in a hot, sweatshop-like mill than it is to find kids who are forced into sugarcane production.

The youthful labor supply for all the child-produced shirts, sheets, and other goods is considerable.

“There are an estimated 168 million, these are ILO International Labor Organization estimates, 168 million child laborers around the world and 21 million forced laborers,” Marcia Eugenio, the director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking, told WAMC.

“Our goal is by having these lists, and this indeed was the intent of Congress in mandating this work, to spur collective action to address these abuses which are fundamental human rights violations. Not to mention that they are also bad business practices that stifle inclusive economic growth and sound economic development,” said Eugenio.

So what can someone who hopes to avoid wearing cotton that’s been picked or woven by tiny hands do? Eugenio told the station that the agency knows which nations have the biggest problems with child and forced labor, but it isn't always sure whether a specific company’s products are the result of a young worker’s efforts. “It’s an important point of discussions with many industry groups and also with governments because some of the goods that we’re listing are major exports,” she said.