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Who really benefits from the growing demands for governments and corporations to 'do something' about child labour in the developing world, asks Norman Lewis

Child labour, new danger?

The publication of A Sporting Chance, Christian Aid's report on child labour in India's sports goods manu-facturing industry, provoked an understandable outcry in Britain. The report cites examples of how Indian children are exploited in the production of sporting goods for sale in this country. The case of 11-year-old Sonia, who allegedly stitches Manchester United's £39.99 Eric Cantona footballs for an effective wage of six pence an hour, provoked predictable outrage (and loud denials from MUFC's legal department). Clare Short, the Minister of Overseas Development quickly affirmed the New Labour government's commitment to stamping out such exploitation, as part of the humanitarian foreign policy outlined in Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's mission state-ment, days before Christian Aid's report was published.

A Sporting Chance highlights some very sordid goings on. Case studies reveal how unscrupulous employers capitalise on the docility and helplessness of child labourers: children often work the longest hours and are the worst paid of all labourers, and endure work conditions which expose them to health hazards and potential abuse. The report paints a picture of conditions which stifle children and deny the opportunity for proper physical and mental development. Other recent reports from the World Bank, the International Labour Office and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) suggest that hundreds of millions of children live and work in similar conditions, deprived of the simple joys of childhood and condemned to a life of drudgery and misery.

It seems inconceivable that any right-minded individual in our society could possibly condone such practices, nor oppose the demand for Western governments or multinational corpor-ations to take some action to end them. The issue seems so clear cut that anybody who questions the current campaigns around child labour is likely to run the risk of being branded a child abuser themselves.

Nevertheless, there are questions that need to be asked about the outburst of concern in the West over child labour in the developing world.

In the first place, what is child labour? There is no internationally agreed definition. UNICEF's The State of the World's Children 1997 calls for an end to 'hazardous child labour', yet admits that emotive term embraces a 'complex reality'. The best the report can do is to make an arbitrary distinction between 'work that is beneficial and work that is intolerable' while recognising that 'much child work falls into the grey area between these two extremes'. Countries not only have different minimum-age work restrictions, they also have varying regulations as to what types of labour young people can do. Moreover, in many developing and traditional societies, child labour is an integral part of family life, regarded as a vital element both in the economic survival of the family and the socialisation of children. Branding such labour as unacceptable would not only be incomprehensible to these societies, it would also represent a potential threat to the long-term well-being of the very children it is designed to protect.

Secondly, what age constitutes a child? Most people might agree that a six-year old is too young to work, but what about a 12-year old? The boundaries of childhood are flexible, set by different societies according to differing circumstances. In many developing countries, poverty forces minors to act as breadwinners at an age when they would still be protected as young children in the West. The World Bank's report 'Child labour: issues, causes and interventions' notes that minors in Paraguay contribute almost a quarter of the total family income. In India, child labour contributes to more than 20 per cent of the country's GNP. In Peru a significant number of six to 14-year olds are heads of households.

The transition to adulthood differs radically from country to country. In the West, it is taken for granted that most children can rely on society to provide free education and healthcare, and can depend on their parents to provide the food, trainers and televisions they need, at least until their late teen years. In the developing world, however, these are luxuries denied to millions of young people. Indeed for many of these children, working is the only way to gain a modicum of education and self-esteem and some longer-term prospects.

The problem with the current debate about child labour is that it rests on the underlying assumption that there is such a thing as a universal childhood; an international standard which can be applied equally in all circumstances. But that is a fiction. In reality, what appears to be an expression of universal concern for the world's children is an arrogant imposition of Western concepts of childhood and its associated values upon the rest of the world.

All of the professional bodies and agencies concede that the overwhelming reason why children in the South work is in order to alleviate the dire poverty afflicting their families. This is why child labour is concentrated in Asia and Africa, which together account for more than > 90 per cent of total child employment. And yes, children are often forced into work by their parents. According to one study, parents were responsible for pushing 62 per cent of child labourers into work; children made their own decision to work in only eight per cent of cases. Children in these countries often contribute more to a household than they consume, in direct contrast to their counterparts in the West.

The idea of parents seeing their children as economic assets to be sold in the labour market horrifies a Western audience. But before we get on our moral high horses we should realise that there is nothing new about such a harsh reality. During the industrial development of the Victorian era, British children made a similar contribution to family incomes as children do in present day Peru or Paraguay. The value of the male breadwinner's wages were so reduced as a result of the introduction of machinery, that entire families including women and children were forced onto the labour market in an effort to recoup the lost earnings. The 'free market' which condemned parents to become child slave traders in Britain last century, operates with the same ruthless logic in the developing world today. Why else would parents in Peru or Paraguay or anywhere in the developing world send their children out to work in hazardous conditions?

Just posing this question reveals one of the more odious unstated assumptions informing Western concerns with child labour. By assuming a universal childhood, the discussion sets up a standard of behaviour by which to judge people in Southern societies. What is presented as a non-judgmental concern to establish civilised standards is, in effect, an iron with which to brand the impoverished parents of the South as child abusers. Any deviation from the Western model of the child and childhood invites immediate suspicion and condemnation.

UNICEF's approach is typical of the trend for treating the exploitation of child labour, not as an issue of social and economic deprivation, but as a matter of immoral behaviour by Asians and Africans. The UNICEF report, State of the World's Children 1997, begins by stating that 'hazardous child labour is a betrayal of every child's rights as a human being and is an offence against our civilisation'. The report then seeks to disprove the 'myth' that 'child labour will never be eliminated until poverty disappears'. For UNICEF, 'hazardous child labour can and must be eliminated independently of poverty reduction'. This begs the question: if child labour can be eliminated independently of poverty reduction, then surely child labour - the 'betrayal of every child's rights as a human being' - must be extraneous to that poverty. In other words, in the world according to UNICEF, it seems that child labour, despite all appearances, is not an unavoidable product of the structural inequalities in the international market economy. So why do children get sent to work? The only other possible explanation is that Southern governments and parents make wicked choices about their children.

By removing the power of the world market from the picture, UNICEF and its co-thinkers inevitably end up focusing upon the behaviour of individuals in the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable societies on Earth. The result is an abusive intrusion into Southern societies, through which governments and families are impelled to alter their behav-iour and priorities (non-judgementally of course) with no regard for the real problems they face.

By establishing the notion of a universal childhood unrelated to the realities of life in many parts of the world, the Western concern over child labour establishes a moral framework and hierarchy which infantilises the entire South, treating all of these societies like children in need of correction. The relationship between the West and the South is represented in the same terms as the adult-child relations in the West. The Western-child model symbolises what is natural and good. The Southern child and hazardous child labour violates this image and becomes the object of parental intervention by the West, either in the form of aid as nurture, or in the form of condemnation and punishment of Southern peoples. The fiction of the universal child becomes another means for reinforcing the West's international dominance, setting up values which become the natural standards of decency against which the South will be judged.

Calling upon Western governments and multinational corporations to 'do something' to end the evils of hazardous child labour is at best naive, at worst irresponsible. The corporate executives and government officials whose policies have impoverished Southern societies have no interest in protecting Asian or African children, other than insofar as they can use the issue of child labour to condemn the barbaric South and thereby strengthen the authority of Western agencies around the world.

And if we hand them the moral authority to dictate how children should live and be brought up over there, why should they not feel free to tell us how to civilise our children over here? On the same day in May that Christian Aid's child labour report was published, New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw announced his contribution to the future of child welfare in this country. Straw's plans included measures to incarcerate more young offenders, to make miscreant children do forced labour for the community, to impose child curfews and to introduce compulsory re-education for those parents who fall short of the government's standards.

It is time to expose the charade of the crusade against child labour for what it is, even though to criticise it is to call down a torrent of condemnation upon your head. For those of us who are genuinely concerned about child labour and the conditions which give rise to it, it is worth pointing out to today's feminised-consensus-seeking-non-adversarial politicians, charities and aid agencies, that the ending of child labour in Victorian England came about not through humanitarian interventions by the Church or State, but through the political struggles of mainly male workers demanding living wages to protect them and their families from the curse of child slavery capitalist society imposed upon them.

Norman Lewis will be convening the Children and the Politics of International Relations course at The Next Step

Wage slavery starts young in Bangkok

Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997

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