All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Image: “Bangle” – glistening childhoods. Grace Forrest.

Grace Forrest, founding director of the Walk Free Foundation, discusses the hidden cost – and opportunity – of fighting slavery through global supply chains.

Jaipur, a city in Northern India home to an estimated three million people, is known around the world for its colourful textiles, jewellery and handicrafts. Thousands of colourful bangles line the shelves of shops from floor to ceiling. Inside, under the harsh lights, you can’t look past the blinding sparkle. But when I visited Jaipur recently with the Freedom Fund team, I wasn’t in search of souvenirs.

Look beyond the glitter and you will find the city’s beauty belies a devastating story involving child labourers, traffickers, and exploitative production facilities of domestic and international retailers. 

Many local crafts provide sustainable jobs for artisans, with intricate skills passed down many generations. But today, traffickers and illegal operators are tainting the city’s beauty by connecting domestic and international supply chains with widespread exploitation and child labour.

In today’s global economy, carpets, home textiles, jewellery and apparel production often rely on cheap, decentralised labour. From hand weaving to stitching, many of the tasks involved in creating these products are completed outside of factories in homes and workshops. Outsourcing is cheaper and allows companies to neglect the responsibility of the abuse that too often occurs behind these closed doors.

Though these “hidden” supply chains are hard to trace, just a short drive from the shops in Jaipur we visited neighbourhoods full of workshops where children trafficked from Bihar state make bangles, embroider textiles and polish gems. They seldom leave the dark, cramped rooms where they work. 

The children, mostly boys, toil up to 18 hours a day and are subject to health risks and extreme forms of violence at the hands of their traffickers. At one shelter for trafficking survivors, a staff member shared with us that some employers mix chilli pepper with water and splash it in children’s eyes to keep them from falling asleep while working. Another shared with us that at night, people purposely avoid the streets where the workshops are known to be located because the cries of children are so loud.

Image:  “Womankind” – 71% of all victims of slavery are women and girls. Grace Forrest.

At first, we were struck by the seeming hopelessness of the situation. Many efforts to improve working conditions are directed at first tier production in factories and rarely ever reach these vulnerable “hidden” children. But an initiative called Child Labour Free Jaipur is taking a new approach by coordinating and scaling the efforts of local government, businesses, and civil society actors to create a community-led theory of change. With support from groups like the Freedom Fund, British Asian Trust, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the C&A Foundation, these communities will be supported by this external watchdog coalition which will measure and hopefully scale their efforts. 

We witnessed this change first-hand in meetings (some held in safe houses) with the local government and police, whose involvement in this initiative is critical to bringing long-term, systemic change to the city. While there is room for improvement, their determination to collaborate and prioritise child labour can be a model for other states in India and around the world.

We heard promise in the commitments of local business leaders, who proudly showed us their production facilities as a testament to the fact that child-labour-free supply chains are not only possible but are better for business. GoodWeave, a partner in the Jaipur initiative, enables companies to transform their supply chains through certification and remediation. This will provide international retailers, who source products from Jaipur, an opportunity to come forward and lead the industry toward a new way of doing business without harm.

In addition to reducing exploitation in existing supply chains, new forms of production employing skilled adult labour can create ethical alternatives for both domestic and international markets. There is immense opportunity for the women who undergo training to learn how to craft beautiful, handmade jewellery. Supported by Industree -an organisation which removes the middlemen that typically take a cut of wages – these women are on the path to be running their own producer companies. Their employment can end cycles of poverty and vulnerability in their families, and provides consumers with the opportunity to support supply chains based on empowerment and not exploitation.

This initiative is not just about creating social change and breaking cycles of exploitation for people who are systematically held back, it’s also about building a new foundation of economic growth in India – one that doesn’t cost people their safety or basic freedom.   

Towards the end of our trip, we learned that trafficked children who have run away from bangle workshops can often be identified by the glitter that remains on their skin and in their hair – a lingering, sparkling reminder of their lost childhoods. 

As we returned home, the glitter stuck with us too.

In light of the anniversary of Rana Plaza this week, this glitter should challenge all of us to look deeper and learn the stories behind the clothes and jewellery we buy. We are all responsible for demanding greater transparency about the products we buy every day. And it is about time we prioritised the conditions behind the products, both from an environmental and human rights perspective, and not just the product itself.  

Community-driven Initiatives like Child Labour Free Jaipur can allow us to not only leave a neutral footprint – but a positive one.

All images credit Grace Forrest.

Watch The Price of Free documentary to learn more about the huge global challenge of child labour.

Read our interview with Baroness Lola Young, discussing the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which she is campaigning to modernise, and how Brexit could impact its progress.

Read our guide on where to start when it comes to dressing ethically.