Karl-Johan Persson

Corporate initiatives: Partnering to eliminate child labour in cotton production

Cotton is the most widely used fabric in the world today, and millions of people – many in developing countries – depend on it for their livelihoods. Yet cotton’s popularity is undermined by unethical cultivation operations.

Six of the world’s top seven cotton producers reportedly use child labour. An estimated 70 per cent of working children are in agriculture. These children and adolescents work on cotton farms, from seeding to harvesting, under tedious and dangerous conditions, at the expense of their education and health. As an international clothing retailer and major cotton consumer, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) takes a clear stand against child labour and has worked for more than a decade to prevent such labour in our suppliers’ factories. Today, our challenge lies primarily in preventing the exploitation of children further back in the supply chain, where we have less influence.

Since 2007, H&M have focused efforts on India, the world’s second largest cotton producer and consumer. With an estimated 4 million farms, India has the largest area devoted to cotton cultivation in the world. The country also has the greatest number of employed children.

On some of India’s cotton farms, child labourers are specifically used to cross-pollinate hybrid cottonseeds and handpick cotton during harvest. The work is often characterized by long hours of hard, monotonous, physical labour with pay well below adult and local market wages. The children of seasonal migrant workers face even greater vulnerabilities and challenges to their education and development. A sample survey ordered by H&M and carried out by UNICEF in 2007 in the Salem district of the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India revealed that employing child workers in cottonseed was rampant.

This discovery led UNICEF and H&M to launch a five-year project in 2009. We named it All for Children, signalling an inclusive and holistic approach. All for Children focuses on the need to strengthen laws against child labour in agriculture, change social attitudes towards child labour and improve access to proper education, health and nutrition in the districts of Salem and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu – where an estimated 1.2 million children live.

There are several reasons for child labour in Tamil Nadu. Indebtedness, unemployment and poorly targeted social protections systems have led to pockets of poverty and families who feel forced to send their children to work to supplement their income. Many children and adolescents lack access to quality education and, consequently, families see little value in sending their children to school.

Eliminating child labour in cotton production is essential to the survival and development of millions of children – as well as to the future of the industry. At H&M, we are dedicated to improving children’s situations in cotton-producing areas and to contributing to a more sustainable model of cotton production. This, however, is no easy task.

Real change can be achieved only through a holistic strategy with collaboration at all levels of society. In order to ensure the success of programmes to end child labour, we must properly address poverty, the lack of education and low awareness of children’s rights, and we must strengthen legal protection. Inadequate legal protection leaves children and adolescents in a vulnerable position, increasing the risks of early marriage, labour and other forms of exploitation.

All for Children is a step forward in UNICEF’s work to support the government’s efforts to improve child protection, education, health and nutrition. Critics may say that we are only scratching the surface. We say that change requires collaboration and support by many. We call upon companies, consumers, national governments and international bodies to take action against the widespread use of child labour in cotton production – in India and beyond. Not only is it the right thing to do but our actions will contribute to more sustainable cotton production.

Karl-Johan Persson has been Chief Executive Officer of H&M since July 2009. He previously served as Head of Expansion, Business development and Brand and was member of the Board of H&M from 2006 to 2009. He is a member of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in the UK and the Good Cause Foundation.

Panels

The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.

Essays

Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.