Sunday, July 13, 2008

The BBC and Child Labour

I am venturing into territory about which I know virtually nothing (well ok, even less than usual). Sometime back, I stumbled upon a BBC Panorama program on a specific instance of child labour in India. (A summary of the program can be found here but the actual program is far more detailed). A BBC reporter (along with an interpreter) in the best tradition of Tehelka (Tehelka is an Indian crusading magazine that specialises in running sting operations complete with hidden camera and microphones to expose corrupt politicians and bureaucrats) visited some garment factories in Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, pretending to be buyers interested in business and complete with spycams to record their visits. What they discovered was that the large British garment chain Primark like may other foreign labels, sub-contracts its work to a factory in Tiruppur Fab and Fashion to manufacture part of its product line which, incidentally, are priced very aggressively in Britain. However, in turn Fab and Fashion sub contracted some of the finer embroidery work and specifically the stitching of sequins on clothes to some families who lived in refugee camps on the outskirts of Tiruppur. Most of this work was done within these families by children, mostly girls, in the 11-14 age group. The reporter also interviewed these girls (again in the guise of a buyer interested in doing business, which I must say I found particularly offensive) who mostly worked from home, and showed him pieces they had embroidered which finally made it to the shelves of Primark in London. (Their openness with this reporter would have devastating consequences as will become clear in the next para). Soon after the BBC showed this story to officials at Primark, Primark reacted, to contain the public relations damage, by immediately and publicly cancelling its full order with Fab and Fashion. The BBC reporter produced some smug and very standard homilies about the curse of child labour in these countries, got some Primark customers to say that they would never countenance child labour and would stop buying merchandise from such companies and ended the program with a self satisfied summary of what he believed was a major blow that he had cast to eradicate this social evil. Unfortunately, my first thought when this program ended was to wonder what happened to the girls and their families. Clearly the immediate, and probably net outcome of this sting operation and the subsequent knee-jerk reaction of Primark, was to squeeze off whatever income was coming their way from Fab and Fashion. Until the next garment manufacturer came along, families such as these would face tough times with no immediate means to compensate for the loss. It's obvious, in the circumstances, that the girls were not going to start going to school just because they had no work. What is more likely is that, and this is probably more true of girls rather than boys, with no alternate income, they would eventually find themselves on the street, to be exploited far worse that anything they had experienced with their previous occupation. The Indian Child Labour Act of 1983 with subsequent modifications in 1993 and 1996, aims to ban employment of children below the age of fourteen years in factories, mines and hazardous employment and to regulate the working conditions of children in other employment. The working conditions of children have been regulated in all employment which are not prohibited under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. The list of occupations and processes where child labour is banned is given here. It's not clear that embroidery and stitching is one of them. Of course, as with many of our forward looking laws, these laws are followed mostly in their breach. However, the law itself takes a pragmatic view of child labour in India. Given its widespread prevalence and its economic dimension, it does not ban it in toto but only in hazardous, dangerous and demeaning occupations, while it tries to regulate it in others. Poor families will always be tempted to put their children to work rather than send then to school, unless they are economically compensated in some way. Virtually every Indian comes in contact with this reality, whether in Udipi restaurants where boys clear up after every customer, or as domestic help, to take just two instances. Nothing I am saying here is of course original! A Google search of 'Child Labour' elicits an enormous number of hits with every aspect dissected in every possible way. My purpose in writing this post is to just highlight the fact that sting operations of the kind that the BBC carried out, with the immediate and fixed purpose of demonstrating its existence and nothing more, do little if anything in ameliorating the child labour problem in India. In particular, as I said earlier, it only serves to squeeze off desperately needed income to poor and destitute families. I began by saying that I am no expert on this, and this post is the result of a gut reaction to a Panorama program on BBC. I would therefore be interested in hearing other opinions, particularly those of experts, (if there are any reading this post!!) on this issue.

4 comments:

sunder and sonati said...

We second your take on this: For the sake of a story, livelihoods are lost. This is not going to make a whit of an impact on the problem of Child labour in dangerous industries in India.

Moreover, if you look at the ethics of the thing, it is surely as bad for an 18 year old (or a 45 year old or...)to be exploited as for a 14 year old. So then one should look at the whole business of outsourcing which is an issue of the Power of Money.

The other point you make is also valid: Surely it is the height of (depth of?) dishonesty to pose as a buyer to get the children to talk to you when you are just after a story.

If Primack is to be held accountable for Child labour in its products, the BBC should be held accountable for playing around with children's livelihoods (and perhaps lives).

AMOK said...

Absolutely abominable. My view is this. The BBC and the media profited from the young children in exactly the same way as did Primark. Anyone who does a titillating story about prostitution is guilty of indulging in the same. I wonder which one is worse -- child labour or child malnutrition.

Perhaps the story was instigated by the competitors of Primark. By cutting off their low-cost supply base, Primark's competition would benefit as Primark would potentially have to raise prices, in the long run. In the short run people would buy from the "untainted" competition. This is the way of the world.

Rahul Basu said...

Correction: It's Primark and not Primack. Sorry for the error.

Sunder and Sonati: I would not blame outsourcing. Outsourcing has provided jobs to millions in India in IT, banking as well as manufacturing like garments and so on. Most of these jobs are well-paid (too well paid if you take the IT sector) and in many ways transformed the economy. The problem comes when the issue gets conflated with child labour, when families need as many hands as possible to make a decent living. This clearly is at odds with expecting the child to go to school. Economic incentives (what kind?) to families who send their children to school is presumably one answer. There are no doubt others.

AMOK: I can never figure out whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with the point of the post!

AMOK said...

Rahul: this is one of the problems of running AMOK. Let me clarify. I, Amok, hereby AGREE with the following statement from the blog. "My purpose in writing this post is to just highlight the fact that sting operations of the kind that the BBC carried out, with the immediate and fixed purpose of demonstrating its existence and nothing more, do little if anything in ameliorating the child labour problem in India. In particular, as I said earlier, it only serves to
squeeze off desperately needed income to poor and destitute families.
"