Summer holidays spent in a sweatshop

Geoff Maslen

AUSTRALIA. While most of his friends are out playing or on the beach this summer, eight-year-old Huy Nguyen is spending his school holidays working in the garage at the family home in Melbourne. For up to 12 hours a day, Huy sews frills and bows on other children's dresses.

During the year, Huy and his two younger sisters also work after school and at weekends helping their mother, a clothing outworker. Mrs Nguyen says if she fails to meet the demands of the contractors who employ her she will not be paid and will not get further work.

Recently, under pressure to meet deadlines from the contractors, the entire Nguyen family - including four-year-old Lon - worked for eight days straight. To make 125 dresses a day, the family sewed virtually round the clock. For their non-stop efforts they received $50 each.

Huy and his siblings are among thousands of Australian children who work after school in backyard sweatshops run by their Asian parents. Many of the children work long hours in the evening and at weekends.

At one school in an outer Melbourne suburb, teachers reported that as many as 30 per cent of their pupils regularly sewed clothes, while others worked selling door-to-door or distributing leaflets.

A school welfare officer said students had been late, absent and sleepy in class because of their work at night. Cases of children being hit because they would not do the sewing had also been reported.

Rod Wee Hee, coordinator of a centre that investigates illegal work practices in Melbourne said: "When you say child labour, you think of bonded labour, the Third World, but there's so much happening here."

A report by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union estimated that of the 140,000 Victorians who make fashion labels, about one in four outworker families uses child labour. Family members earn an average of only $2 an hour but if they complain they are told they have been acting illegally and could be deported.

Last year in the federal Parliament, a Labour MP named 42 leading Australian fashion and garment manufacturers who allegedly sold clothes produced by outworkers and their children. The scandal has caused the Australian senate to set up a committee to investigate the issue.

Save the Children Australia is also gravely concerned at the way children are being exploited and has called for community support in its campaign to stamp out the practice.

Father Peter Collins, a child rights advocate with the group, has asked people to put their money behind firms that are prepared to end what he describes as an outrage.

He said: "Despite being named in Parliament, only two of the firms have since signed a document saying they will not condone exploitation of outworkers and their children."

"We are also asking firms to put a label on their clothes stating they are not made by exploited labour. And certainly not by children."

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Geoff Maslen

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