Turn Rhetoric into Action to Combat Child Labor..
“My Christmas shopping seems to have not cost as much this year”, I overhear a middle-aged lady tell her friend as she leaves the ‘cheap and cheerful’ British clothing chain Primark laden with bags and boxes. With dresses for sale for £8, jumpers costing as little as £4 and jeans being snatched up for a mere £10, it is little wonder people are choosing to do their Christmas shopping at the likes of Primark.
Cheap and cheerful clothing outlets may be the latest phenomenon to hit the high streets in the west, offering seriously economical clothing ranges, but are they ethically as jolly? According to the International Labor Organization, over 200 million children throughout the world are working, many full-time. And the situation is becoming worse. Since the globe went into recession in 2008, many children –especially in poorer countries– are being forced work to help support their families.
The risk analysis firm Maplecroft compiled the 2011 Child Labor Index illustrating the severity of the global child labor crisis. The report revealed that the biggest sector employing children is clothing manufacturing, where 70 percent of the child laborers are working in the countryside, where they are hard to trace.
The countries identified as the worse child labor hot-spots are emerging markets, including India, Pakistan Nigeria and Bangladesh. Whilst China has often been dubbed as being “the workshop of the west”, it was ranked the 13th worse country for exploiting children for labor. Although knowing the exact statistics on child laborers in China is difficult to identify, as the information is classified as “state secrets”.
India, for the second year running, has the highest number of child workers, with government figures suggesting India has up to 16.4 million children working. Although this figure remains hazy and the US state department puts it closer to 55 million.
Warning companies of the risks associated with sourcing goods from emerging economies that are relying on child labor, Monique Bianchi, an analyst from Maplecroft, commented:
“These large emerging economies are essential to the strategic interests of multinational business. Not only is child labor wrong but the existence of child labor within a company’s value chain can have significant impacts on reputation and profits and it is critical that companies undertake stringent monitoring of all suppliers.”
Exposing children to labor has to be morally wrong, doesn’t it? So what is the world going to do about it?
According to some, nothing. One argument regarding escalating global child labour, suggests that although it is morally compelling that child labour should be abolished from society, banning it would prove disadvantageous to the welfare of poorer countries and could come at the expense of human capital accumulation. Working within this line of thought is Staphane Pallage from the Centre for Research on Economic Fluctuations and Employment at the University of Montreal (UQAM). Stephane Pallage and Sylvain Dessy from the University of Laval and CREFA, conducted a thesis showing that “the existence of harmful forms of child labor, in fact, has an economic role: it helps keep wages for child labor high enough to allow human capital accumulation.”
According to Pallage and Dessy, “unless appropriate mechanisms are designed to mitigate the decline in child wages caused by reduced employment options for children, a ban on harmful forms of child labor will likely prove undesirable in poor countries.”
Whilst initial response to this line of thought may be shock, horror and ‘how can the world possibly condone child labor?’ in many impoverished countries, a child’s wages is often fundamental to a family. Without it they may starve. Families struggling to put food on the table have little choice than to send their children out to work. To ban child labor is a western moral judgment that would negatively affect the poor.
The argument that prohibiting child labor would, in effect, worsen developing countries economical situation, is all very well, but can the morally-upstanding west sit back and do nothing? In actual fact, the west, whilst they may verbally condone the thought of children being exploited and working for a pittance, in regards to action, they have not accomplished much to rectify the situation. Rhetoric therefore needs to be replaced by action.
The only snippet of action surrounding the child labor crisis was in 2008, when a BBC Panorama investigation accused Primark of using child labor in its overseas manufacturing operations. Not only did the expose lead to Primark axing three of its south Indian suppliers for subcontracting embroidery work to groups using child labor, but it also ignited a huge protest outside its flagship store in London.
Since this intense surge of public anger towards such ‘unethical acts’, and Primark’s flurry of announcements that it is committed to the principle that child labor should not be used in the production process, little has surfaced in the western media or in western politics about this morally ‘awkward’ situation.
So what is the solution? Similar to many ‘ethical’ dilemmas, education is often the answer. Education is a necessary tool to combat child labor and although the international community has the funds to provide free primary education, a mere question of budgeting priorities, has resulted in funds not being spent on educating the neediest. According to the World Watch Institute, the annual expenditure on perfume is $15 billion, whilst achieving global literacy would only require an annual investment of $5 billion.
You only have to look at the millions of Christmas shoppers buying millions of pounds worth of goods from cheap and cheerful retailers to where the bulk of the population’s priorities lie. Western consumers certainly do not feel a moral obligation to bypass these outfits in case they are practicing unethical production methods. But then who can blame the consumers? Stores are at price wars to try and lure the Christmas shopper through their doors, and being on a tight budget themselves, consumers are lapping it up, buying ‘cheap’ whenever possible.
The solution lies within the international community spending money on providing better access to education, greater social awareness and activism and the rehabilitating of child laborers. Or as Craig Kielburger, a Canadian activist for the rights of children, once said: “The change starts within each one of us, and ends only when all children are free to be children.”
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