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.