Kids Can’t Work Retail, So Why Do Stores Sell Clothes Made by Them?

A provocative experiment exposes the developed world’s hypocrisy around child labor.
Apr 11, 2016·
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.

It’s unthinkable that a clothing store in the developed world would hire 10-year-olds and make them work a 16-hour day with no breaks. But some of the same international fashion brands that would balk at such a practice probably sell garments made by children working under those conditions in developing countries.

That heartbreaking double standard is what’s put in the spotlight in The Child Labor Experiment, a short video that shows five 10- to 12-year-old kids in Berlin trying to get jobs at clothing stores and companies.

RELATED: M.I.A. Teams With H&M on Recycling Clothes, but Activists Aren’t Impressed

The clip, produced by Fashion Revolution, the global movement to expose and halt child labor and sweatshop abuses, shows the children cold-calling companies, showing up in stores, and attempting to get hired. The nonprofit was launched after the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed around 1,100 people and injured about 2,500 more. It produced this latest video in advance of Fashion Revolution Week, a global awareness campaign that will run in 86 countries April 18–24.

“With The Child Labor Experiment, we hope to raise attention and make people realize that a fair share of the power to stop child labor lies with the consumer,” Annett Borg, country coordinator at Fashion Revolution Germany, said in a statement.

RELATED: See How Much Sweatshop-Made Clothing Gets Trashed Every Two Minutes

In the video, the kids offer to work long hours without breaks and for very little pay—just like children working in sweatshops. The reactions of adults were recorded with hidden cameras, but their faces and voices were digitally altered to preserve anonymity, and the companies are never named.

The responses the kids receive are telling. “But you’re way too young to work here,” one confused-sounding store employee tells a youngster named Emily. Emily’s second attempt to get hired is met with a similar rejection. “But in India, children are allowed to work,” the girl replies to the store employee.

According to the International Labour Organization, roughly 168 million children around the world are forced to work, with many of them risking their lives in inhumane factories so all Western consumers can purchase $9 jeans.

“It’s not about which clothes to buy or not to buy but to be curious,” said Borg. Fashion Revolution hopes consumers will ask garment manufacturers, “Who made my clothes?”

“Transparency is the first step to transform this industry,” added Borg.