Child labour is a large, and growing problem in our world. Many manufacturers are exploiting families' poverty by informing them that they may sell their son or daughter into an “apprenticeship.” Manufacturers need to employ small children because they are better for the job, but the real reason is that they are cheap. A manufacturer of carpets in Pakistan said, “Boys at this stage of development are at the peak of their dexterity and endurance, and they're wonderfully obedient -they'd work around the clock if I asked them. I hire them first and foremost because they're economical. For what I'd pay one second-class adult weaver I can get three boys, sometimes four, who can produce first-class rugs in no time."
There are many charities and charitable organisations working to end child labour in all its forms. Child labour can be something as relatively benign as a minor, forced to go out and work for their family’s survival, to something as extreme as a ten year-old being trained to kill and sent into a front-line battle or as abhorrent as child prostitution. The pressure groups are hoping that by making people aware of child labour, and working with organisations such as the United Nations, they can convince people to help put a stop to the practice.
But to do that they must examine why child labour is present in the first place. It has always been the case that in many countries a child would work for the family at home, but since the 1960s it has become more and more common for the child to be sent out of the family, and into debt bondage with a factory or sweatshop.
The children almost exclusively come from poor families in developing countries such as Pakistan. The procedure often takes the same form; first the family runs out of money, sometimes due to the main breadwinner losing their job. This will leave the family in a dire position since it is unusual in these countries for any protection for the poor to exist. It is usual for the family to know of someone in a business that requires child labour. In Pakistan for instance, most of the carpet industry is powered by children, in fact UNICEF estimates that between half a million and a million four to fourteen year olds now work as carpet weavers, this is estimated as about ninety percent of the entire work force.
Once a business has been located, either the child is taken to the factory, or a representative of the factory will come to visit the family. The representative will explain, at length, how good “learning a trade” will be for the child, and how he will be well treated, and well looked after. Sometimes it is claimed that in six months, the child will learn more than they will in six years at school. The family, blinded by these claims, and feeling their lack of money more than ever will attempt to negotiate the peshgi, a form of payment from which will be deducted “expenses,” these expenses are often fabricated and the amount that the family eventually receives is usually about one third of the peshgi. Once this has been negotiated, the child is taken way for an agreed time, usually between five and twenty years.
There is always a high demand for child labour, it is much cheaper than buying machines, or paying for adult workers, but Children are better equipped to perform the complicated tasks required of them than animals, "Children are cheaper to run than tractors and smarter than oxen," explains one Rawalpindi landowner. He prefers field hands between seven and ten years old, "because they have the most energy, although they lack discipline."
However, the child’s working life does not necessarily end at the factory to whom they were sold. In fact it is commonplace for the child to be sold to another factory, and then another, and then another, with several miles in between. The advantage of this for the employers is that once the child is an untraceable distance away, they will no-longer have to pay the peshgi to the parents. Once this happens, the child is in effect a slave.
One girl in Pakistan described the conditions that the children in one carpet factory were kept in; "For the masters, bonded children are a commodity. My master bought, sold, and traded us like livestock, and sometimes he shipped us great distances. The boys were beaten frequently to make them work long hours. The girls were often violated. My best friend got ill after she was raped, and when she couldn't work, the master sold her to a friend of his in a village a thousand kilometres away. Her family was never told where she was sent, and they never saw her again."
Many countries have signed up to UN regulations that state that no child under a certain age should be made to work for a living. Unfortunately, often these laws are unenforceable. When questioned as to why the police had not shut down a carpet factory that had been employing dozens of children, some as young as eight, authorities had this to say; "They understand best the needs of their community. Law is not an absolute. We must expect a certain flexibility on the part of those who enforce it. Could this sometimes mean looking the other way? Absolutely."
Profiteers of child labour often twist logic to justify their actions, it is this logic that enables authorities to feel justified when they allow police not to arrest or fine factory owners that utilise child labour. One of the most potent of these is claiming that the charities that campaign against child labour are hypocritical. The claim is that countries that are now prosperous enough not to make use of child labour, became prosperous through its use. It is certainly the case that much of the money that Great Britain and the United States of America have came from the slave trade and the industrial revolution. Slavery is now condemned in both these countries, and the industrial revolution was for a great part powered by children who would work the machines. This only stopped when the countries became rich enough to pay adults to work. Propagators of child labour argue that countries such as Pakistan, are simply building up their economy to a state in which it would be able to support adult labour.
“Europeans addressed slavery and child labour only after they became prosperous. Pakistan has only now entered an era of economic stability that will allow us to expand our horizons and address social concerns.” This is a quote from Shabbir Jamal, an adviser to the Ministry of Labour in Pakistan. The problem with logic such as this is that it sounds very convincing, however, it is economically untrue. In fact child labour is self-perpetuating. Manufacturers make money by producing goods at a lower price than what they sell them for. The lower the price, the more money they make. Therefore it if labour is cheap they can make more money. This creates a situation in which the person, who demands less pay, has more chance of getting a job. It is easy to justify paying children less. One child worker said “I get paid less than my father because I am smaller than him, and eat less,” this leads to adults getting paid less, since if they demand more money, they will not get a job. Given the falling wages, families are forced to send more of their children to work to support themselves, thus creating even lower wages, and more profits for the manufacturers.
With more children requiring work to support their families there is no need to invest in machines that can do their job for them.. Rather than send ten children to school and replace them with a machine, then pay one man (the children’s father) ten times a child’s pay (three times his current pay) to operate the machine, manufacturers have no need to front the money for the machine thus perpetuating child labour. Najanuddin Najmi, the director general of the Worker’s Education Program in Pakistan, addressed this problem. “If employers would apply as much ingenuity to their manufacturing processes as they do to evading labour laws, we'd have no child-labour problem There's little doubt that inexpensive child labour has fuelled Pakistan's economic growth. Entire industries have relocated to Pakistan because of the abundance of cheap child labour and our lax labour laws. At the same time, child labour has hindered our industrial development, especially in the use of advanced technologies. Why should a manufacturer invest in labour-saving technology when labour-intensive mechanisms are so much cheaper? We are discovering more and more factories that have been redesigned and retooled so that only children can work there.”
If anti-child labour laws were enforced, it is entirely conceivable that the following could happen: the first thing that would happen would be manufacturers would struggle to keep in business. The only way they could do this would be to employ adults. With the demand for labour suddenly very high, control of wages could be, for the first time, in the hands of the employees, who would be able to charge what they wanted for their services, knowing that someone would pay it. Manufacturers would not be able to replace all of their child workers with adults and therefore would be forced to buy machinery to do the children’s jobs. It is believed that the capital is there, since employers have, for years, been paying minimal wages. With children out of work, there will be more chance for education; this may enable the country to move out of poverty in much the same way as the west has.
However for this to happen, other obstacles would have to be overcome. The first, and most obvious of these is greed. Manufacturers would not like being forced to pay for machinery and would protest. There was a case of a government in the third world attempting to impose a modest tax on the manufacture of carpets, with the intention of putting the money into schools. Carpet manufacturers refused to pay the tax, and launched such a strong campaign, that the government was forced to repeal that tax. The solution to this may be education and compensation. If the first world can subsidise manufacturers, by giving them grants to pay for the equipment (not loans, that has been tried and simply leads to perpetuating poverty since there is no opportunity to progress further due to repayments).
This can be combined with a campaign that a campaign that explains, and convinces manufacturers that in the long run they will make money out of this scheme (this is true, since eventually they will be able to mass-produce their product, and therefore sell more, they will also be employing less people, and, due to extra jobs being created elsewhere, for instance in manufacturing to the machines, they will be paying less in wages overall.
However, to implement these plans charities and governments would have to overcome propaganda, suspicion and paranoia. Often education campaigns are dismissed as “communist propaganda” this, (aside from being a manifestation of the general misconception that all communist ideas, including those relating to worker’s rights are a bad thing), is inaccurate, since the solution proposed is utilising capitalism, by giving the manufactures the capital to convert their businesses to modern means of production.
It is well known that often the governments and police are in the pockets of the manufactures, and so will be unwilling to accept new ideas, for fear that they are wrong and the corrupt politicians will not get their bribes. Government workers will make claims that there is no child labour in their country, "Our industry is the victim of enemy agents who spread lies and fictions around the world that bonded labour and child labour are utilized in the production of hand-knotted carpets. They are not and have never been," this quote was given by a politician in a building, literally metres away from a factory, or sweatshop in which hundreds of children were forced to work up to twenty hours in a row.
There may even be problems with convincing the workers that this will be a good thing. The workers have often been instructed not to talk to westerners, believing them to be communist agents, or in Pakistan, Indian spies. One charity worker reported that every child she talked to replied the same way, “please sir, I have nothing to tell you, please let me go.” Coming up against this sort of opposition, it is even difficult to convince the children, or their parents that they are being exploited.
Child labour is institutionalised in many countries, UNICEF estimates that the number working children under sixteen, exceeds two hundred million. With governments believing that their country’s economy relies on them, with manufactures believing that they need the children to produce their products, with parents needing to feed their families, and with children being told they have to work, that number is likely to keep growing.
Presentations given at the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery
www.icftu.org/ focus.asp?Issue=childlabour&Language=EN –