Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 7.                                                                          April 8, 1999 

Marching the Young into Factories and Away From Schools

'They Need the Work,' But Why Little Boys and Girls?

From the economics faculty of an Australian university comes this email: "What do you think of the economic argument that [at least in a country like Bangladesh] a child needs to work in order to survive?"
It's an old refrain. I for one heard it from a Bangladesh manager whose factory I visited in 1992. To explain the presence of girls and boys as young as eight or nine that I saw employed in his workplace, he told me: "They need the work." The same argument crops up in many Western circles, most recently from people expressing compassionate doubts about the student campaign against sweatshops.

The compassion is misdirected. The Bangladesh factory I visited employed at least 20 girls and boys under the age of 14 (the legal minimum age for employment then, and now). How many poor girls and boys of 14 and above were they displacing? Since Bangladesh had, and still has, millions of unemployed adults, don't "they need the work"?

Exposing a Rationale That Keeps Poor People and Poor Countries Poor

The people with the most discernment on this issue, in my experience, are generally Asian men and women with genuine compassion for the poor. Foremost among them are two Indians, Kailash Satyarthi, head of the South Asia Coalition on Child Servitude, and Neera Burra, a social anthropologist, both dedicated to the plight of the poor.

To the claim that poverty causes child labor, they reply forcefully: child labor causes poverty. Satyarthi supplies supporting statistical evidence: as the millions of India's child laborers grow larger, so do the millions of its unemployed persons aged 14 and older. Continuing to force young children to work instead of going to school, Satyarthi predicts, means that India and the rest of South Asia will be "perpetuating poverty, illiteracy, and abject misery" for at least 80 million future adults in the region.
Part of the scandal is that some globalized industries--garments, shoes, and leather goods among them--are promoting the full-time employment of underage children. With its huge potential for modernization, globalization could help expand opportunities for children to benefit from five years of primary education. Instead, it is reinforcing the developing world's elites and their discriminatory policy of maintaining poor children in the labor force rather than in school.

That's the cruel context of the "they need the work" rationalization. The new Nobel Prize winner in economics, Amartya Sen, a Bengali who attended St. Gregory's School in Dhaka, Bangladesh, says that universal primary education is the top requirement for economic development in South Asia. But the region is ignoring that basic need.

Bangladesh's 'Greatest Social Injustice'

In an article published in a Bangladesh theological journal, Father R.W. Timm, C.S.C., writes: "The elitist orientation of education in Bangladesh is its greatest social justice....The elite and elite education get the lion's share of educational benefits for higher education [secondary school and up], while most of the poor do not even receive primary education....Fully 72% of the government's education budget went for higher education."

(For a brief analysis of the dangers behind the assumption that poor children should fill the jobs created by globalization, see an article of mine, "Meet Ali of Bangladesh--and Others Just Like Him," at clali.htm. Also, check my "Diary: Some Lessons Learned from Students" at biii-12.htm, as well as other listings under "Sweatshops and Child Labor" at cl.htm.)

Flaws in a Program that the ILO Deems a Success

In Pakistan, three years ago, boys and girls as young as 5 were working up to 11 hours a day stitching Nike, Adidas, and Challenge soccer balls. They still are. That's so despite--

The Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund, whose "Foul Ball" campaign began targeting the child labor abuses in the soccer industry three years ago, has just released the results of an independent investigation of child labor in this Pakistani industry. The news is bad. Not only does child labor persist among at least half of the manufacturers who signed the "Partners' Agreement," but, according to the investigation carried on by Pakistan's Association of Network for Community Empowerment, the ILO program has a number of serious problem areas.  These include:
Monitoring.  Employers often have the advantage of an "early warning" system, whereby they can learn well in advance of a visit by ILO's inspectors, who are residents of the area.
Rehabilitation. Although the program was to provide educational opportunities for the children, none was found in the 23 villages checked.
Transferring Work and Workers. Because the ILO program is concentrated in the region of Sialkot, some manufacturers have relocated to other districts nearby, outside the jurisdiction of the ILO's inspectors. Besides, when work is seasonally slow, some children are sent off elsewhere to work in the surgical instrument industry, which is also notorious for exploiting children.
At least one U.S. soccer company, Baden, has shifted its production from Pakistan to China, according to the Labor Rights Fund. The Fund contacted Baden in October 1998 to request access to production facilities in China, but has received no response.

The ILO considers the Pakistan program as one of its 15 "Selected Successful Action Programs" to eliminate child labor, and explains why on its Website at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/90ipec/publ/expls-98/exampl5.htm. In fact, the ILO is planning to duplicate the program in India. But, says the Labor Rights Fund, "we feel it would be irresponsible to expand the program to another country without first addressing the serious problems inherent in the current initiative."

To read the Fund's "Report on the Continued Use of Child Labor in the Soccer Ball Industry in Pakistan," see http://www.laborrights.org. The new U.S. Department of Labor report, "Efforts to Eliminate Child Labor," includes a summary of the Pakistan ILO program in Chapter V, at http://www.dol.gov/dol/ilab/public/programs/iclp/.

Details aside, the bottom line is this: Whatever the labels on soccer balls may say, they are still stained by child labor. And the major lesson is this: achieving sweatshop reforms in the global economy--even with corporate codes of conduct and the support of the ILO and UNICEF--is difficult, though not impossible. Success requires enforcement mechanisms far stronger than those now in place, and far stronger than now envisioned even by the ILO and UNICEF.

Diary: The Agonies of Spring Cleaning

In the spirit of the new season, I've begun some office cleaning.  It's stressful. My file cabinets, wall cabinets, and cardboard storage boxes are filled with too much material on too many subjects. I also have clippings, Internet print-outs, booklets, books, and much else strewn across the floor too, waiting to be put into files and onto shelves that are already overflowing.

Much of this stuff has got to go. But what?

My wife has reinforced my good intentions by reminding me that I need some order in my room. First, though, I must put some order in my priorities, and that's not easy.  Obviously, I must stick to my primary focus--worker rights in the global economy--and discard my abundant secondary and tertiary materials. But so much is interrelated in the global economy. The struggle for human rights is a drama being played out on many levels and in many places. Still, it's clear that my files and book cabinets devoted to China, which swelled while I was writing an article for Foreign Affairs in 1996, are badly in need of reduction. The same is true of the child labor materials that I have accumulated over many years.

While culling is a chore, it also has its rewards. I've long hunted, unsuccessfully, for the clipping of an article by Murray Kempton in which he lashed out at the scandalous abuses committed against children. I found it the other day. Before I misplace it again, here is the closing paragraph of the article, "A New Colonialism," which appeared in the November 19, 1992, issue of the New York Review of Books:

"The old colonialism cut down forests, ripped out mines, and press-ganged men and women strong enough to be serviceable as slaves.  The new colonialism pillages Asia for children, who constitute the one imperiled piece of nature to escape notice at international conferences on the environment. In the new colonialism, even as in the old, the slave trader can always find an indigenous enterpriser eager to sell him the bodies."

Pay of U.S. CEO's Soaring Far into Stratosphere

Back in 1980 the average CEO of a major American corporation made 42 times the pay of a typical factory worker. By 1997 CEO pay reached a staggering 326 times that of the ordinary worker.

How come top executives have such stratospheric incomes? One reason: in effect, they set their own pay. For details on CEO greed, check the Website of the AFL-CIO at http://www.dol.gov/dol/ilab/public/programs/iclpl/.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-7, April 8, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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