Child labour isn’t as straight forward as you may think

Listening to the BBC’s flagship news programme, News Hour, a few nights ago, I heard a story that got me thinking about one of the largest problems that faces the poorer nations and communities worldwide: child labor.

Listening to the BBC’s flagship news programme, News Hour, a few nights ago, I heard a story that got me thinking about one of the largest problems that faces the poorer nations and communities worldwide: child labor.

According to the report, Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco on Tuesday said the use of forced child labour in Uzbekistan meant it would no longer buy the country’s cotton to make its clothes. In its press statement given the AFP news agency, Tesco said that, "Following ongoing discussions with campaign groups on the subject of cotton production and the use of child labour ... we feel the need to re-iterate Tesco’s deep concern at the use of child labour . . . the use of organized and forced child labour is completely unacceptable and leads us to conclude that whilst these practices persist in Uzbekistan, we cannot support the use of cotton from Uzbekistan in our clothing."

Personally, I’m totally against the notion of children working under the hot sun, picking cotton for the enrichment of some cotton baron. But it often isn’t just a matter of plain exploitation. Let’s look at some Uzbek economic figures; Uzbekistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is only $386 per annum. Let’s try to put some perspective to that figure; Rwanda, which is a poor nation, has a GDP per annum of $242. That means the average Uzbek makes about Frw50,000 more than the average Rwandan on a yearly basis.

Now imagine what would happen if, all of a sudden, western customers of our coffee decided not to import our number one product. There would be utter bedlam economically and socially. The central bank would hardly have any foreign exchange in its coffers to import essential things like medicines, and the farmers wouldn’t have any more money to provide for themselves and their families. Our economy would head in only one direction, down.

That’s what has happened in Uzbekistan due to this well-meaning move. Cotton, like coffee in Rwanda, is this nation’s biggest export; in fact, Uzbekistan is the third largest exporter in the world and it is, therefore, probably the mainstay of its economy. This cotton is gathered by hand. What does this mean? It means that, unlike in richer nations where the harvesting is done by machine and therefore capital intensive, the Uzbek cotton industry is labour intensive instead. Can you imagine how many people are employed picking cotton manually? Tens of thousands.

Now, why would children, if the reports are true, be steamrolled into the dusty, hot cotton fields, probably alongside their parents? I put my head to the block and offer this assumption; nobody would put children in the fields, neither their parents nor the Uzbek government, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Child labour is, as the Tesco’s press statement put it, complicated and not one-dimensional as we wish it could be. Let’s use some local examples. A rural family often has certain pressures that urbanites, like you and I, and western supermarket chains don’t understand. They have very little, and they must survive with whatever means at hand. Very often, the means also include their own children. The children fetch wood, water, work in the gardens and rear the family livestock, if indeed they are lucky enough to have any.

I’m sure that parents know that their children ought to be going to school, but here is the million dollar question: What’s more important, food or schooling? Remember that most of the people that face this stark choice between these two human rights, of food and education, are often the same ones who can’t fulfill both these needs simultaneously. The opportunity cost of feeding and clothing the children is work that the children shouldn’t be doing.

So, how can we holistically fight child labour without breaking the backs of the parents? First of all, we need to understand that child labour is an issue of poverty and nothing else. Child labour was prevalent in the West during the 19th and pre-World War Two 20th century, and came to an end only when their economies became more mechanized. Therefore, I believe that third-world nations will bid ‘adieu’ to this when they can afford to; when they leave the agrarian base of their collective economies and mechanize. However, this is a gradual process that the pressure groups in the West must understand. Instead of agitating against child labour, maybe they should agitate as strongly for fewer tariffs, less agricultural subsidies and more aid.


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