The limits of compassion

How very virtuous westerners can feel about a rusting vessel wandering the west African coast, carrying some hundreds of children to slavery or, if no work can be found for them, to death at the bottom of the sea. Britain and America abolished slavery in the century before last; this trade involves obscure countries of which we have scarcely heard, much less visited. We can therefore indulge our sense of superiority from across the oceans. Why, even the Daily Mail devoted three whole pages to the matter on Tuesday. Clearly, Middle England is in the mood for a spot of long-distance compassion. Facts - the children, if they existed at all, were unlikely to be set to the physically demanding task of harvesting cocoa - need not detain us. Western news values dictate that child slaves are more newsworthy than adult slaves; 250 of them crammed in a single ship more poignant than thousands scattered across cotton plantations (which do use child labour) or rich people's homes; a wandering vessel more dramatic than one that has safely delivered its cargo; and, well, there are not many stories around at Easter. We can just stop eating chocolate, which we vaguely think is bad for us anyway.

But what happens in the developing world, as we call it (a laughable euphemism since most countries in sub-Saharan Africa are not developing at all), is on a continuum. Yes, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of slaves in Africa, adults as well as children. Child slaves exist, not chiefly because evil men have physically seized them, Roots-style, from primitive but Arcadian villages, but rather because their parents have sold them into slavery. They sell them because they are desperately poor. They may well think that, as their poverty seems to be increasing all the time, their children will be better off with someone who at least has some self-interest in feeding them, even if only at subsistence levels.

The standard western answer to this situation is economic development. Africans are poor because they are over-dependent on cash crops and do not make enough manufactured goods for export. Bangladesh, by contrast, is the seventh-largest exporter of garments to the US. So children as young as ten cut threads, tie knots, sew buttonholes and sleep in factories at night. The Philippines also makes goods for export: shoes, pyjamas, computer screens, jeans, many of them for world-famous brand names. These products are often manufactured in "free trade zones", where companies enjoy zero taxes and lax regulations. Employers get away with long hours (at least 12 a day), abusive, military-style regimentation, summary dismissals, and wages that barely reach subsistence level, if at all. The large majority of workers are young women. Many have children. Those children, lacking adequate food and clothing, to say nothing of mothers with time to look after them, may well drift into the burgeoning local child sex industry.

These are just two examples: you could repeat them with variations through large parts of Asia and Latin America. It is not wholly clear that they, to use the Mail's word, shame us less than child slavery on cocoa (or, more likely, cotton) plantations in west Africa. And they surely do not shame us less than the conditions of late 18th- and 19th-century British factories shamed our ancestors. Globalisation puts us in a position that is morally and economically indistinguishable from those Victorians who cheerfully allowed children to clean their chimneys and mine their coal.

But hand-wringing is easier than finding solutions. Anti-globalisation campaigners, as John Lloyd notes (page 10), are not strong on practicalities. If we boycotted goods and crops produced by child labour, for example, many children and their families would be plunged into even deeper poverty, perhaps into starvation; at best, the children would move into domestic service or prostitution or breaking bricks.

The truth is that globalisation is lopsided. Capital, concentrated mainly in the developed nations, can be deployed freely, to its owners' best advantage. Any obstacles to its movement - exchange controls, tariffs, government regulations - are deplored as violations of the laws of nature. (For the latest developments, see Barbara Gunnell's report on page 12.) Objections to its disruptive effects on its host societies are dismissed as reactionary romanticism. In contrast, labour, concentrated mainly in the poorer countries, cannot move freely. Every possible obstacle is put in its way; western politicians talk constantly about the threats that immigration poses to the stability of their societies.

Suppose that a captain of a rusting, slave-carrying, African ship, overwhelmed by guilt, somehow managed to make his way to the English Channel, ready to land his cargo in Dover. How would we and our newspapers react to that? We can guess the answer. By Wednesday, the Mail, whose tears had flowed so copiously on Tuesday, had discovered that the MV Etireno was not all it had seemed to be. The authorities had searched the ship, it reported, and "found only economic migrants aboard". Cancel that compassion now!

Tories slide into the sea

There is good news for Tony Blair's ambition that the 21st century should be a radical century: the Tory bits of the country are crumbling away. During the heavy winter rain, it is reported, Britain has suffered some 500 landslips. Analysis suggests that most of them are in Tory constituencies. Dorset is steadily diminishing, taking with it three Tory marginals. Deep-blue parts of Sussex are sliding into the sea. Tory North Norfolk is being washed away and, with luck, should be carried by the waves to Austin Mitchell's Great Grimsby. There are some blips: the white cliffs of Labour Dover are in trouble, as is Lib Dem territory in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. But the long-term trend is good: the Tory south and east are sinking, Labour north and Lib Dem west rising. If the rain can indeed be put down to global warming, we can explain the government's transport policies: the conversion to road transport, and indifference to its effects on the climate, are the result of clever electoral calculations.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the pure in heart