Rebecca Barry Hill reports on the Kiwi women tackling child labour
No one called them mad — to their faces, anyway. But when New Zealanders Michelle Pratt and Nikki Prendergast set out to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problem of child labour, plenty expressed their disbelief.
“I remember someone saying, ‘Have you got any idea how big this is?’,” laughs Michelle in the duo’s Parnell office.
Their new initiative, Child Labor Free, may seem like a noble yet futile attempt to save the world. But the project is a world-first initiative gaining attention from several local businesses and “major global brands”, say the pair.
CLF provides accreditation to brands that do not use child labour, often the result of kids living in poverty. A certification mark means consumers can make an informed decision about how their goods were produced and, more importantly, by whom. Unicef estimates 150 million children worldwide are engaged in child labour; in the least developed countries, nearly one in four (ages 5 to 14) work in hazardous conditions.
Michelle and Nikki first became interested in the topic when they were sourcing furniture and toys for their New Shoots childcare and educational resource centres, and it dawned on them that some of the parts might have been made by children. After a fruitless search to find a scheme that would guarantee they weren’t buying unethical products, they spent two years researching the issue.
Despite several non-government orga-nisations working to prevent child labour behind the scenes, until now, consumers had no way of knowing if the car, computer or coat they’d just bought was, at some stage in the supply chain, made by children.
“We realised it’s almost endemic,” says Michelle, who lectures at Auckland University on early childhood subjects. “It changes the way you look at everything that you buy. Think of a pair of glasses. Where do the screws come from? What metal is that and who assembled it? Was it children?”
“We couldn’t unknow what we knew,” adds Nikki, a consultant for the Ministry of Education. “But we needed to find out if other people cared.”
A Child Fund survey of American opinions on child labour in 2013 found 55 per cent of consumers would spend more on clothing if it was produced without child labour — 34 per cent more, on average. And although there’s undoubtedly a difference between what we say and do, 75 per cent of consumers said they’d be willing to change their shopping habits in response to the issue.
CLF’s initial focus is fashion but they aim to work with a range of industries. Qualifying businesses will be able to display a mark of certification on everything from swing tags to social media pages. Local labels Ruby, Kate Sylvester, Stolen Girlfriends Club, Hailwood, Nom*d and more recently, Zambesi, have signed on as pilot brands before CLF launches to consumers at New Zealand Fashion Week in August; Ecostore has also joined.
Michelle and Nikki insist they’re not anti-consumerism. Unlike groups that have tried to combat this issue by naming and shaming brands, they’ll work alongside businesses to resolve issues. “There hasn’t been a lot of celebration around the issue,” adds Michelle.
“Brands saying, ‘We’ve found something and we’ve worked to do something about it’. What happens when you name and shame is they move their factory somewhere else. If they’ve been manufacturing in China, they push into Bangladesh, Cambodia and Burma, where the cost per piece is cheaper still.”
There are three stages to the auditing process, starting with manufacturing; Starex children’s furniture is the first brand to achieve this initial accreditation (the CLF mark with an added “M”). Once brands have provided documentation, an international team of assessors performs due diligence, audit checks and random site visits, a process repeated the following year.
The next stage is to investigate components, an accreditation marked with a “C”. Fashion-wise, this could be anything from buttons to zips; a potentially lengthy process for the likes of electronics. A brand will receive a plain mark only if it can clear its raw materials.
“Getting back to source is really tricky,” says Michelle. “That’s back to the field for cotton.”
The time for such a system seems ripe, what with consumers demanding transparency around product provenance, and greater understanding of the story behind their favourite brands. Just as we’ve come to expect “cruelty free” as an industry norm in beauty, or actively seek out organic or free-range produce in our supermarkets, it’s hoped Child Labor Free will become an industry standard.
Even so, child labour is a complex issue, one that could be stymied by “accreditation fatigue”. Is there a possibility, for instance, that a product could be deemed child-labour free but not be fair trade? Will the mark ever stand for more?
“I believe it already does,” says Nikki. “It stands for ethical practice. If factories have sustainable policies around labour, health and safety, fair trade and working conditions, it’s less likely they’ll use child labour.”
Declaring one supplier child-labour free could mean several brands benefit. But CLF will be a success, says Nikki, only if the numbers of children illegally working improves. And what if child labour is discovered somewhere along the supply chain? Removing the labour could have negative consequences, by cutting off incomes and potentially sending children into trafficking and dangerous trades.
There’s no easy fix, but they’re inspired by the work already under way. Good Weave, for example, is an organisation working to protect children working in the carpet industry. They are also working with Unicef.
“If we find child labour anywhere in the supply chain,” says Michelle, “we’ll find out why those children are in child labour and we’ll do something to resolve it.”
• See childlaborfree.com