Who made my clothes?

This week in Hanoi there’s a terrific exhibition looking at the “human cost” of fashion.

Every shirt, jacket or jeans we wear were ultimately made by a human being somewhere on the planet.

Sometimes, those people have been exploited to make the items we adore. And none of us want that: any decent person would be mortified to learn that their clothes were made through the suffering of another.

While Blue Dragon is now well known for our work in combating the trafficking of Vietnamese girls and women into the sex trade in China, back in 2006 our main anti-trafficking work involved rescuing children from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our foray into this dangerous work began accidentally. As Blue Dragon’s founder, Michael Brosowski, shared in his TEDx talk, our first rescue was of a teenage boy selling flowers on the street. When we took him home to his village in Hue province, it led to the revelation that many girls and boys were being taken for exploitative labour in southern Vietnam. We later discovered that children from a north-western province, Dien Bien, were also being taken to the same factories.

Initially, our fight to set children free from garment sweatshops was met with significant opposition. Nobody believed that this was happening; it had never been reported before and nobody was talking about it.

Maybe we were just making it up?

But no, we really weren’t.

So we did what we could do. We spoke with families whose children had been taken by the traffickers and sought their permission to find them and bring them home. The families always readily agreed.

And then we went and did just that: we found children, mostly aged 11-16, working up to 18 hours a day for no pay, and we took them home. Then we continued helping their families to overcome the poverty that had lead to their trafficking in the first place.

After doing this for a few years, we could see that the need for our help appeared endless. We didn’t want to keep rescuing trafficked children forever – we wanted to end the problem once and for all.

Today we can say that we have been successful. We certainly haven’t ended all trafficking – not by a long shot! – but the specific instances we were dealing with are now history. Children from the provinces of Hue and Dien Bien are no longer being targeted by human traffickers to be taken to garment factories.

Importantly, the garment factories aren’t now just trafficking children from other places; and the children of Hue and Dien Bien aren’t simply being trafficked to some alternative slavery. Often small-scale efforts to end trafficking can inadvertently result in the trafficking simply shifting to a different place, and we were determined to not let this happen.

So how did we put an end to this trafficking of children into sweatshops?

In a meeting in a hotel room in a small town, we spent a morning brainstorming.

We started at the end: What would it take for there to be no more of this child trafficking? What conditions would we see around us?

Thinking this through, we came up with the following:

First, children and their families would neither want to, nor need to, take up the false opportunities for work and training that were being offered by traffickers.

Second, the factories would not want to have children working for them any more.

Third, the traffickers would be too scared to continue their work.

Fourth, the general public would not accept child labour in the supply chain for their clothes.

And fifth, all government agencies would understand this problem and take action to prevent the trafficking.

Put simply, that was it.

If we could create those five conditions, then there wouldn’t be any more trafficking of children from the “hotspot” areas to the sweatshops; and the sweatshops wouldn’t recruit children from anywhere at all. So we set about doing the work that would lead to those five conditions.

We worked with local media to highlight the problem; we met with government officials at all levels and in multiple locations to seek their buy-in; we ran information campaigns in villages and we scoured the industrial areas of Ho Chi Minh City to find children locked into factories.

Along the way we saw some appalling treatment of children. Denied medical treatment; fed a diet of cheap white rice and instant noodles; and many were beaten and locked into buildings so that they could not escape. This drove us on to find more children and get them home, and bring this problem to an end.

This holistic approach, working alongside government, communities, police and media, lead to a gradual but significant change. Families are no longer interested in the false promises of the traffickers – they have better opportunities at home and know what to do if a trafficker turns up. Both the traffickers and factories have had to give up on recruiting children, as the cost to their business when caught simply became too high. And neither the general public, nor the Vietnamese government, has any tolerance for children being in the supply chain of garment production.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there is absolutely no child trafficking into sweatshops, or that it doesn’t exist elsewhere. But it’s now an exception rather the norm.

We used to bring home 20 or more children on each rescue operation, several times a year, whereas now we respond to just a handful of calls for help each year, and usually a few phone calls to the police and local government is enough to sort it out.

So there is hope. If this one form of trafficking in Vietnam could be stopped, then we have reason to believe that others can also be stopped.

And when we go shopping, we can be a lot more confident that no child had anything to do with producing the “Made in Vietnam” clothes that we love.

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