Children’s Lives at Stake: Working Together to End Child Labour in Agra Footwear Production

Children’s Lives at Stake: Working Together to End Child Labour in Agra Footwear Production

Children’s Lives at Stake: Working Together to End Child Labour in Agra Footwear Production

Research conducted by the Fair Labor Association and iMentor between October 2014 and December 2016 demonstrates a high prevalence of child labour in Agra, India, a city where the production of shoes is the most important economic sector after tourism related to the Taj Mahal. Twenty-five per cent of Agra’s population is involved in making shoes, producing around 200 million pairs annually and supplying up to 65 per cent of the domestic market.

The research project, commissioned and supported by the Stop Child Labour Coalition (SCL), and supported by international footwear brands sourcing from Agra, found that low wages for adults and insufficient educational infrastructure for children were the two primary root causes of the widespread incidence of child labour in Agra. The project team also found that while export-focused factories in Agra have taken steps to prevent child labour among their regular workforce, informal piece-rate work and the use of subcontracting present clear child labour risks.

With the goal of reducing the incidence of child labour in Agra, upon the project’s conclusion, the team recommended the establishment of a “Child Labor Free Zone” pilot through a collaboration between the government, brands, suppliers, civil society, and members of the community in one or more communities in Agra. In creating a “Child Labour Free Zone,” participants focus not on a specific industry sector, but on eliminating all forms of child labour from a specific geographic area, whether children are working to produce footwear, in the tourism industry, or in some other sector.

The MV Foundation, a partner of SCL, has pioneered this approach initially in Andhra Pradesh, India, and replicated the approach in several rural and urban communities in India and Africa, successfully moving one million children from work to school in India alone.

Research on Conditions in Footwear

Producing Communities Early in the project, a research team from MV Foundation joined project staff from iMentor and the FLA on a visit to Agra to learn more about local educational challenges facing families with children.

The team spoke with government officials, visited both government-run and private schools, and conducted a survey of 36 families in a neighbourhood where employment in informal footwear manufacturing is prevalent. The team learned that nearly 20 per cent of children from the families surveyed were involved in making shoes. Interviews with labour department officials, civil society organizations, and industry officials yielded agreement that child labour is a widespread and significant problem in Agra, with the informal footwear industry as the largest employer of child labour. In visits to small manufacturing units, including home-based units, the team observed children involved in hand stitching, machine stitching, thread cutting, pressing, adhesive application, marking, packing, and other shoe-making tasks.

Local officials informed the project team that child labour is officially forbidden in Agra in all registered manufacturing units employing more than five workers. Home-based work units, or others employing no more than five workers, need not be registered with the government; all stakeholders agreed that these units posed the greatest risk for child labour. Officials pointed out that other workplaces — such as hotels and auto mechanics — run a high risk for child labour in Agra as well.

Numerous stakeholders reported poverty as the root cause of child labor, explaining that parents alone are not able to earn enough from making footwear to adequately provide for their families, with wages in the home-based footwear sector often falling below the legal minimum. The team also found lack of access to education to be a root cause of child labour in Agra, where government high schools (for children 12 and older) do not exist in the communities visited by the project. For children younger than 12, local primary schools are dilapidated and not adequately equipped to provide children with a robust education, and there are not enough free or low-cost schools to serve all children in the area.

Child Labour in Households and Informal Workplaces

To more comprehensively explore the issue of child labour and its underlying causes, the project team conducted an in-depth survey in 200 households across four shoemanufacturing communities in Agra. The team conducted eight focus group discussions — two in each community — with one discussion per community for child workers and one for adults.

For nearly 95 per cent of families surveyed, the informal footwear sector provided the primary source of the families’ livelihood. Most families included five to seven family members, and most families surveyed had a combined monthly income lower than INR 9,000, with 40 per cent of families’ incomes lower than INR 6,000. Meanwhile, the legal minimum wage for a single unskilled worker is just over INR 7,000,1 and the World Bank international poverty line for a family of three is just over INR 5,000.2

The majority of respondents reported that children begin to work in the footwear industry between the ages of 8 and fourteen. The survey revealed that while boys may either work at home or travel to neighbourhood workshops (sometimes with a family member), most girls contribute to footwear production brought into the home. In workshops, boys work from around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The team found that only half of the children age 12 or younger in the families surveyed were attending school.

Risk of Sub-Contracting to Informal Workplaces by Export Facilities

For the next phase of the project, the team visited ten tier-one manufacturing facilities, all of which were manufacturing leather footwear products for multiple brands, and nine of which were producing footwear for export. All ten suppliers confirmed that the minimum age is 18 for workers they formally hire. Suppliers acknowledged that they can legally hire young workers between the ages of 14 and 18, but stated that the administrative burden of doing so makes employment of young workers undesirable. All factories reported that they require age documentation before hiring, and confirmed that they are being audited by their brand customers for compliance with strict standards against child labour.

However, nine of ten factories also confirmed that the majority of their workforce is composed of piece-rate workers, rather than regular hired workers. Factory management cited high worker turnover, and the seasonal nature of customer orders as factors in the high employment of informal workers that do not have long-term employment contracts, and are not on the company payroll. Factories reported that they verify the ages of all their piece-rate workers, though this could not be independently confirmed.

All factories visited for this study reported that their buyers forbid subcontracting, and suggested that subcontracting is not done. However, over the course of the study, several indications of subcontracting emerged. For example, one factory reported subcontracting the production of leather uppers. This factory’s management does not conduct compliance visits to its subcontractor, has not disclosed its use of subcontracting to its buyers, and requested that the researcher not disclose this information. Two other factories similarly disclosed that they subcontract hand-stitching work, sometimes to households, while two others provided contradictory information about subcontracting.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Export-focused factories in Agra are aware of child labour issues and have taken steps to prevent child labour among their regular workforce. Informal piece-rate work and unauthorized subcontracting present the greatest risks of child labour. A strict policy against subcontracting may not be sufficient to ensure an international brand sourcing from Agra that work is not being outsourced to small workshops or home-based manufacturing units where children are working.

While the project team recommends broad multi-stakeholder collaboration on the creation of a “Child Labour Free Zone” in Agra, in the meantime, international brands sourcing from Agra should also:

  • Directly and regularly collaborate with suppliers to build trust, provide guidance, and obtain accurate information about subcontracting and child-labour issues in upstream supply chains;
  • Conduct regular monitoring visits, focusing closely on issues facing young workers, and taking steps to eliminate unauthorized subcontracting;
  • Avoid purchasing practices that exert economic pressure on suppliers, contractors, or subcontractors that may encourage child labour.

Further recommendations for brands, and other stakeholders — government, civil society, suppliers, and others — appear on p. 13 of this report.

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