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Child Labor’s Prevalence Perception Problem–What the Consumer Surveys Reveal

The CLC’s Reid Maki

There are a lot of obstacles to ending child labor that the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) and its nearly 40 members confront on a daily basis. Poverty, governmental indifference, educational access issues, and a lack of awareness of the negative, long-term impact of child labor on children are all big factors, but another is lack of knowledge of the scope or prevalence of the problem.

The average American consumer doesn’t understand that child labor is a pervasive problem affecting an estimated 152 million children in the world – and that’s an estimate developed before the pandemic started. We think the number has grown significantly since COVID-19 began, throwing hundreds of millions of families into deeper poverty.

We became aware of the gap between the public’s perception of the problem and the reality of situation seven years ago when the group Child Fund International commissioned a survey of over 1,000 consumers. Only one percent knew that roughly 150 million children were trapped in child labor globally. That number translates to one in 10 children. It’s staggering to think about. Even more disturbing: 73 percent of survey respondents – essentially three out of four—incorrectly guessed that the global total was less the one million. They were off by a factor of 150!

It’s hard to galvanize public and political opinion to confront a pressing social problem when few people realize the massive scope of the problem and instead misperceive it as a tiny, moribund problem. If we want corporations that benefit from child labor to take serious action, we need a better understanding of the problem’s prevalence. Governments are not likely to act or expend financial resources on programs to fix a problem perceived as affecting very few children.

We’ve been wondering if the internet and Twitter and our persistent efforts to educate the public have helped close the perception gap in the several years since Child Fund’s polling. Surveys are expensive and our budget didn’t allow us to conduct a phone-based survey like the 2013 poll.  We decided to use a Survey Monkey internet poll to see where the public’s perception levels were at.

We gave respondents the opportunity to guess how many children were impacted by child labor and we offered them six answer options:

  • 1 in 10
  • 1 in 100
  • 1 in 500
  • 1 in 1,000
  • 1 in 5,000
  • 1 in 50,000

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Holiday Shopping? Some Strategies to Consider if you are Concerned about Child Labor and Want to Shop Responsibly

With the holidays approaching and many Americans scrambling to buy presents, we get many questions from consumers who are interested in shopping responsibly. Newly released data suggests that there are about 40 million individuals in forced labor and 152 million children who are trapped in child labor in the world today. How can one avoid buying products that may contribute to this rampant exploitation?

The U.S. Department of Labor “Sweat and Toil” app provides valuable advice to consumers about products made with child labor and forced labor.

Unfortunately, there is no clear and simple answer. The supply chains of many companies have multiple layers of production–even reaching into people’s homes–and it’s extremely difficult to monitor this work at all the levels.

Fortunately, there are some tools out there to help consumers. One of the best is the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Sweat and Toil” phone app. It informs consumers about 130-plus goods that are produced with child labor or forced labor. It will also tell consumers which countries produce those goods and then ranks those countries on how well their efforts to reduce child labor are going. You can access this information on your computer by clicking here. More than 1,000 pages of valuable information is contained on the site.

If you are about to go clothes shopping, you can quickly look up which countries have been identified as producing clothes with child labor: Argentina, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Seven countries used forced labor to produce garments—you’ll have to go to the site or use the app to figure out which ones. It’s actually remarkably easy to use. Please down load the “Sweat and Toil” app now—before you forget!

The site and app will help you learn some of the most common products of child labor. Gold, for example, is produced by child mining in 21 countries. Cotton or cottonseed in 18 countries. Coffee is produced by child labor in 16 countries. The data, unfortunately has some limitations. For the most part, it does not list assembled products. For example, many of the metals and minerals that help make your smart phone and the batteries that help it work are on the list, but assembled cell phones are not.

Consumers looking to buy handmade carpets should look for the GoodWeave label to ensure that rugs are not made with child labor.

We get a lot of questions about product labeling. Why can’t consumers buy a product labelled “child-labor free?”  GoodWeave, a nonprofit member of the Child Labor Coalition, issues labels that help consumers buy carpets (and coming soon other products) that are child-labor free. GoodWeave has strict standards and inspection systems, that reach every worker from the factory to village to home. When they find child labor they eliminate it and provide remediation and long-term rehabilitation for the former child laborers. Their programs go well beyond others, ensuring communities across South Asia are “child friendly” and that all children are going to school and learning. It wasn’t that long ago that there were one million children weaving hand-made carpets under slave-like conditions. That number today is believed to be less than 200,000. GoodWeave has transformed the lives of thousands of children in partnership with over 150 brands and retailers. In a few years, we may have several more product lines that we can say with some certainty are child-labor free.

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