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26 June 2000

Invisible children of the south

The west is very keen to clear its conscience of child workers in clothing and toy factories. But mo

By Jeremy Seabrook

At ten-thirty in the evening, in a new high-rise flat in Dhaka, a little girl of about nine treads, noiseless and barefoot, on the cool marble floor. She sets a plastic tray on a table beside me, a plate of sweet bananas, biscuits and coffee. Catching my look of astonishment, my host – a teacher – says: “Shamina works for us. She is like our daughter.” His real daughter has been sleeping for more than an hour. Shamina receives no wage.

– Arif was ten when he went to live in a garment factory in Dhaka. His sister was a machinist and he and other children worked as helpers. They were allowed to sleep in the factory at night as a privilege, but they also served as unofficial, unarmed nightwatchmen. “We sat under the machines, cutting threads, tying knots, sewing buttonholes. We slept on bundles of cloth. My sister brought food, but the owner gave us roti and tea in the morning. When the children had to leave the factory, we were told to go the same day. The owner gave us 200 taka [about US$4]. Next day, I got a job selling flowers at the traffic lights.”

– On the pavement outside a repair shop in Dhaka, a boy of 13 is welding metal. He crouches on the sidewalk, in one hand a length of darkened plastic to shield his eyes from the glare. A fountain of blue and orange sparks bursts around him. He is making ornamental grilles for windows, and is already a skilled worker. His face is smudged with grey metallic dust; his hands are covered with the shine of burns. His name is Roubel. Roubel is earning 500 taka a month (US $10), and this will rise now he is doing a man’s work. He was an “apprentice” without pay for two years. Education? Roubel’s smile widens, as though he pities the ignorance of the question. What could education teach him that he does not know already? About work, about survival, about life. His proudest achievement is that he provides rice for his brother and sister. His scarred child’s hands are their only shelter against utter destitution.

These are the realities of child labour that lay behind the collapse of the fateful meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999. The WTO was promoting itself as a regulator, not only of world trade and environmental protection, but also of “core labour standards”. The WTO wanted to prevent any country from taking advantage of such ancient economic devices as child labour, prison labour, bonded labour and all the other ingenious variants of slavery that persist in the modern world. Developing-world governments fiercely resisted any such pressure from the west (whose wealth is thanks in no small measure to practices it now seeks to outlaw), and the negotiations broke up in disorder and acrimony.

The unfolding drama of globalisation is driving more families to depend for survival on the labour of their children; yet almost every government in the world – apart from the US – has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids child labour.

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The most dramatic effort by the west to get children out of factories was the Harkin Bill that went before the US Congress in 1992. This measure would have banned the import of garments made with child labour. It was never enacted, but the very suggestion was enough to empty Bangladesh’s factories of children in double-quick time, since Bangladesh had by then become the seventh largest exporter of garments to the US.

Under the Harkin provisions, money was to have been set aside for the education of the displaced children. But it’s unlikely that it would ever have reached most of them: thrown out of the factories, they were swiftly absorbed by other employment sectors, which did not produce goods for export. Jehanara Begum, of the Union of Garment Workers, says that children leaving the garment factories fell into casual work, where they were no longer under adult supervision. The average age of domestic workers fell; many children became brick-breakers; others went into factories making fireworks, balloons or glass, or small repair shops and garages. Some sold flowers and trinkets in the streets.

“Core labour standards”, if the will to enforce them exists, are only of value if they don’t evict children from the organised sector into even more damaging labour. Either way, they will affect only a small minority of child workers. Most children are not employed in the tradable sector at all – the busy searchlights of western publicity illuminate only occupations af-fecting the west. We are keen to clear our conscience of the sweat and pain attached to goods we consume – garments, toys, trainers, shoes, carpets. We are less energetic in focusing on the plight of maidservants of eight or nine, working all hours of the day, often for no wages apart from their keep, and who are frequently mistreated or sexually abused. There are no crusades against the use of child brick-breakers, covered with the red brick dust they inhale as they work. And who is campaigning for those ragged children tending cattle, gathering fodder, collecting water, harvesting rice, cutting sugar-cane, or spreading pesticides on family farms?

What response to these ancient injustices but gradualism? The new orthodoxy – enunciated by the most recent International Labour Organisation convention in 1998 – is that the abolition of child labour is impossible, but a more gradual prohibition of the most damaging and hazardous occupations may not be. We should settle for what we can achieve, not go for the unattainable. A new element in the evolving discourse is “to ask the children”. Unsurprisingly, most working children want to work, because this makes a contribution to the well-being of their families; but they also want time to learn and play.

This retreat from outright abolitionism is perhaps symptomatic of a general belief that the integration of all societies into the global economy will, in time, float all countries out of poverty, provide all children with education and all adults with an income sufficient for them to dispense with the labour of the very young. Globalisation, both inevitable and beneficent, will supposedly resolve the uncomfortable dilemmas and permit us to turn our gaze from the child prostitutes of Ho Chi Minh City, the tiny maidservants of Dhaka, the under-age garment workers of Jakarta.

At the same time, humanitarians and economists alike fall back on comforting formulae about education as the supreme antidote to child labour. But ask the millions of unemployed young graduates in the developing world what education did for them. What purpose the rote learning, the superficial literacy, the orthodoxies of business culture, degrees in marketing or management, hi-tech know-how, when all that is on offer are low-paid functions in the service sector for which years of study have disqualified them? Just ask the sociology graduates from Accra driving taxis in London, or the degree-holding Bangladeshi waiters in the restaurants.

While the abolitionists promote their vision of a labour-free childhood, and the gradualists hold seminars in Sheratons and Hiltons all over the globe, child labour remains the most intractable problem and damaging indictment of globalisation. The countries of the South are compelled to offer the labour of their people in a Dutch auction of global competitiveness. As long as adults receive wages below subsistence, families will need children to bring their daily income up to the level of survival.

Despite all the discussions about working children, child labour, to the apostles of globalisation, is a more tolerable evil than truly free labour, whereby humanity might be allowed to seek secure sustenance by moving about the world with the same liberty accorded to goods and money.

The writer’s Children of Other Worlds will be published by Pluto Press this year