Child labour: A necessary evil?

Child labour: A necessary evil?

In July 1995, a document concerning India was tabled in the US House of Representatives, which said: “There exists a little-known human rights problem in India, which is very grave. This problem is the exploitation of child labour. The United States government and the international community have paid little attention to the prolific employment of young children. It is time to attend to this neglect.”

India has always been the whipping boy for several ills. Enforced child labour is only one of them. Bride burning, dowry deaths, child marriage, bonded labour, money laundering, drug peddling. The list is endless. Today, the US government again indicts India among countries that use child labour in their garment factories which will surely hurt the interests of garment manufacturers and their workers by reducing the flow of orders from America. It is surprising that the western world –especially America – is not perturbed by multinational companies such as Reebok, Nike, and Levis Strauss and others which are exploiting human labour in developing countries like India massively.  These  companies are called sweatshops. According to the UN Committee on Trade and Development,  these child labourers “work under inhumane conditions and barely earn a pittance for producing thousands of  products worth  hundreds of  dollars.”  It adds that developing countries are booming because of massive direct foreign investment while workers suffer degrading working conditions and low wages.

Inhuman treatment

According to a recent survey, India remains the most preferred outsourcing destination by large private American corporations, with over 60 per cent of the market share in the US.  Speaking of multinationals exploiting children, ‘The Economist’ carried an article ‘Sweating for Fashion’ which says “Nike, for example, has been accused of using child labour in Cambodia; Adidas of using prison labour in China; Benetton of using child workers in Turkey.” Where is the public outrage, where are the tears by human rights organisations in India and abroad for this kind of inhumanity? Why cry foul only at those children in the fireworks factories of Sivakasi; the diamond polishing factories of Surat, the silk reeling yards in Karnataka or the carpet weaving godowns of Punjab? They have made world headlines (and blockbuster films too) even though it has not reduced the sale of crackers or diamonds or silk or carpets in countries which condemn the practice.

At least, the families of such children have accepted the fact that the younger generation must carry on the family trade. They don’t shed false tears for their children. The sons and daughters of weavers, goldsmiths, tailors, carpenters and similar  professions  specialise in those skills which their ancestors practiced. They do not think that their children are abused. They have merely passed on a legacy to them. 

The problem of child labour is a complex issue, something that cannot be solved through legislation or with simplistic solutions. It is driven mainly out of poverty and in societies where women have limited choices in questions of marriage or family planning. Desperate for money, and unable to feed their families, they sometimes inevitably place their offspring in bonded labour or worse. The next best thing they can do is to hand over the elder siblings to factories, hotels or even homes where they are assured of at least one proper meal every day.

In big cities, the most sought after places are building construction sites and industries which find that employing children is cheap and easy to handle. So also are small business houses like tailoring shops, retail cloth stores, automobile repair garages. Children find jobs here in return for small salaries and a few meals a day. If deprived of these, they may turn to more undesirable professions like begging and prostitution. Their parents argue, and rightly so, that they are learning skills which may enable them to set up businesses of their own later. Alternately. what use is a school education ending with a useless school leaving certificate that leaves a youngster unskilled and unemployable?

This does not mean we should perpetuate child labour. It is a question of what viable alternatives can governments offer before legislating for its ban. Far better to let a child work and earn for his family while learning skills himself, rather than turn to begging  or thieving or worse. NGOs speak of child rights. Other countries denounce this obnoxious practice. What alternate feasible solutions do they offer for a country with a billion plus population where 40 per cent is illiterate, much of it living below the poverty line? Child labour cannot be wished away in international seminars or with thundering speeches. Unless and until we find suitable alternatives through a more meaningful education system, our children will continue to stitch Nike shoes or Levis jeans — if not reeling silk, polishing diamonds, weaving carpets or rolling firecrackers.