Monday, August 11, 2008

Child Labour, Sweatshops and the West’s Crocodile Tears

This is in continuation of the debate on creative capitalism, an idea made popular by Bill Gates. For earlier inputs see tag: Capitalism.

Tim Harford writes:

My final worry about recognition is that we do not always recognize behaviour that will truly help the poor. A simple example: a friend
of mine recently bought shoes made in Italy rather than shoes made in Romania, specifically because she was worried (in a rather vague way) about encouraging sweatshop labour.

I am a bit worried about this 'concern' for the poor in other parts of the world expressed through the market place. It could backfire on the poor person in most cases.

Let me try to explain this through an example:
Sometime ago while I was working in Delhi, we used to get tea, coffee, etc, from the Indian Newspaper Society's building in Rafi Marg, a stone throw from Parliament House, served mostly by small children from Nepal. I asked the boy why he was serving in the canteen instead of going to school like all other kids do.
He said he would like to. But things were bad at home, and his father had no way but to send him to India where he could find some work. He said once things are better and he earns a little money to help his parents, he would go back and get into a school one day.

I knew child labor was a crime but what could I do? Report him to the police? I could only pray that things would get better for him, and perhaps now that his country is a republic he may be able to go back and enter a school.

I was trying to say, there are moral choices in this. Avoiding goods for fear of aiding sweatshops even inadvertently might harm a family somewhere, who are dependent on this little money for their survival. Those little ones in the sweatshops in those far-away dreary places too have their parents who had to make a moral choice too, and it is difficult for any parent to send the kids to these work places instead of schools. But they have no option in most cases.

I do not say the world should keep a blind eye to the extremely poor working conditions in the poorer parts of the world. By no means. It should always be concerned, it should agitate, put pressure on governments, and try every which way in which it could help them.

But paying a higher price for the goods of same quality from a developed country to avoid something suspected to be tainted by the sweat of a child from a poor country can't be the right answer to this moral question. Perhaps it boosts one's self esteem, but surely it would not help bring in a better world for any one of us.
Posted by: n p chekkutty | July 26, 2008

Stephen Landsburg writes:

Undermining the anti-sweatshop movement would be an excellent place to start.

This is an excellent proposition because one of the first things the West can do to help the poor in the developing world is to dispel the sentimental nonsense revolving around this concept about 'sweatshops' in those countries. The fear of sweatshops and the 'conscientious' objection to the products from these countries is a virus fast spreading all over the developed world and I am sure, it would hurt the poor of our world much harsher than any other steps the West can take, say the protectionist legislations or even the the refusal to help with aid.

A few days ago in response to a post by Tim Harford, I had made the following observation: "Avoiding goods for fear of aiding sweatshops even inadvertently might harm a family somewhere, who are dependent on this little money for their survival."

I feel that since Prof Landsburg has made a scathing criticism about the way the West is dealing with this issue, it is necessary to look at it from the standpoint of those countries and people who are likely to be hurt by such measures.

First let us accept that the working condition in most of the developing world is not as comfortable as the workers in the developed world enjoys. But the crucial aspect is that while there may be choices for the workers of the developed world, there is precious little choice for those living in these parts of the world. The less choice, the less bargaining power you have. Hence exploitation of the labor is at a much higher level in these parts, no doubt about it.

So what to do? Leave them to the care of God and disallow their products from the Western shops? And thereby deny them the daily meal, if at all they are able to afford a meal by all these exertions? I have seen hundreds of kids who work in road projects, small workshops, mills, canteens, etc, and then go to school to build their lives. By refusing to buy the products that may have their sweat on it, what we actually do is to deny them the only chance to hold on to a better life, stonewalling the only glimmer of hope they may have.

The best way here is to put pressure on the governments, the factory owners and the business community in these parts of the world to improve working conditions, to go for stricter law and enforce labor standards. Here the trade unions and political parties who are deeply involved with the poor people's lives could be of immense help. So what we need to do is to think of building strategic tie-ups with the political establishment, say the trade unions, political parties, etc, and enforce change. But the Gates Foundation memo never even speaks of such a strategic initiative as they do not think the political society in the third world can be a valuable ally in the effort to promote creative capitalism. I think this is a fundamental mistake on their part. They speak of Prahalad and the gains to be picked up at the bottom of the pyramid. Fine. But unless you have somebody alive at the bottom how can you pick up anything from there?
Posted by: n p chekkutty | August 04, 2008

A response to a query from Jessica Haussler, Frankfurt:


My objection to the campaign against 'sweatshops' now gaining ground in the rich countries not because I do not want the working conditions there to improve. I do certainly want the difficult conditions in which people work in many companies who are suppliers to the global chains to improve. Naturally, any consumer pressure that would force the corporate firms to take actions to get the situation improved would be welcome. But that can be done not by diverting production units, shifting locations, or cutting back orders. But through forcing their collaborators to go for better standards, by persauding the local governments to enact much stricter laws, and ensuring decent working conditions do exist in those countries also.
But the problem with a blanket campaign and boycotting of such products simply on the basis of a suspicion that it involves child labour can be disastrous to those people who depend on them. Possibly they work in abominable conditions, but refusing to buy their products would only mean denying them their daily meal. I suppose no conscientious consumer can ever think of doing it.
Posted by: n p chekkutty | August 06, 2008

No comments: