About a week ago I went to see a play in London called "An Indecent Incident", which is based on Dostoevskys "A nasty story". Before we, the audience, were summoned in to observe this promenade, I was approached by a beautiful lady who was also attending the play. She offered me a flyer, and being the mammal I am, I showed great interest in her, and did not take too much notice of the manifesto I now held in my hand. Only once she had left to pursue her recruitment, did I notice the message she was trying to convey to me. There, in my hand, was a piece of paper exclaiming with large, bold letters:
"BOYCOTT CHILD LABOR!"
Now, unfortunately I can´t remember the exact content of the flyer, so any attempt to quote it will be incorrect, so I will paraphrase the rest. It encouraged people not to buy product, especially items of clothing and shoes from companies that deal with child labor. It went on to explain the awful conditions of these factories and also asked the reader to take action and put pressure on the British government to stop trading with certain countries where child labor is taking place.
As we went in to watch the brilliantly performed play about a young, naive, upper class man who wishes to connect with those whom he sees lesser than himself (i.e the poor), by preaching the philosophy of kindness, not realizing how condescending he is being in his feeble attempts, I could not help but feel a hint of irony.
Obviously, one can always draw parallels in these situations. My hero, Christopher Hitchens, tells a story about doing a rapport in Czechoslovakia during the fall of the country. He says that before writing his article, he had promised himself that he would not mention Kafka, because it would be the obvious temptation to do so. But he suddenly found himself being arrested one night. When asked the soldier or officer who held a gun against him, what he was being arrested for, what he was being charged with, he was met with the answer:
"We don´t have to tell you!"
So, allow me to draw the parallels. In the beginning of play, Ivan, the self proclaimed protagonist, is having drinks with two fellow civil servants. After a few too many drinks, Ivan starts going on about how the rich should at times lower themselves to help the poor, to treat them more like pets than cattle, if you wish. As he leaves the two gentlemen, he stumbles upon a wedding celebration of one of his subordinates, and sees a golden opportunity to put in to practice what he had preached. He crashes the party, that up until then had been inhabited only by the common men and women. All attention is suddenly on our intoxicated idealist, and he does nothing to redirect it. Actually he revels in it. The man being married, it turns out, is one of Ivans employees, and another employee respectfully confronts Ivan with a letter he had received earlier that forced him and his family into unemployment, due to cutbacks. The letter was from Ivan himself. As the play progresses and culminates, Ivan manages to take over the celebrations completely, and turn it into an awful night for everyone involved, as well as making a complete fool out of himself. Now to the parallel!
I think that the beautiful girl who approached me with the flyer is Ivan. She honestly thinks she is doing a good deed, a morally just action. And she wants others to join her cause. But she won´t be confronted with the employees she so fundamentally wishes to protect. She has merely decided to speak for them, without any of them asking her to, just like our Ivan. If she had, maybe she would have realized that child labor, although never desirable, is at times a necessary evil, and to boycott companies that deal with such would only destroy the lives of the exact same people she wishes to protect.
Child labor occurs today in developing countries, such as Thailand, Pakistan, China and so forth. But it is very easy for us in the affluent world to forget that less than a century ago, OUR factories were full of children, working in appalling conditions, missing the chance to have a childhood, an education or a "normal" life. In France, there was actually a law that forced parents to send their children to work. What happened? Why don´t we see any child labor in Britain, America, France or Germany anymore? Is it because of a law? Is it because people boycotted factories that employed children? Is it because the people put pressure on governments, who in turn put pressure on other governments?
No, it is because we grew out of it. We built an economy, where children were no longer required, or needed, in factories. We built economies where parents suddenly could afford to pay for their children to have an education instead. We built an economy where people no longer needed to steal for living, where we could provide work and education for our citizens, so they no longer felt they needed to fear where the next meal was going to come from. And when I say "We", I am including those children who worked in the primitive factories of the time.
When a nation is entering the phase of Industrialization from having been a Developing country, it is experiencing a metamorphosis unlike any in its entire history. This is the greatest change any country can possibly go through. It is extremely important that we remember, when assessing this issue, that we cannot judge the Third World according to our own way of living.
Children in a poor country do not become workers because their parents are cruel, or because factories force them to, they become workers because they need to survive, because the earnings of their parents isn´t sufficient enough.
We have to realize that families in poor countries do not have the options we have, and if the people who promoted boycotts of these factories had their way, the result would always be worse for the exact same people they claim that they try to protect. A terrifying example of this was in 1992, when it was revealed that Wal-Mart sold garments that were produced by children in Bangladesh. When Congress found out about this, they threatened to prohibit by law any trade with countries where child labor was occurring. As a result of this threat, thousands of children were fired from the factories in Bangladesh, and international studies reveal that most of those children had to move on to more dangerous, less paid jobs, and in many cases prostitution. The same outcome happened in Nepal, when a boycott against the Nepalese carpet industry resulted, according to UNICEF, in more than 5 000 young girls being forced in to prostitution.
Half of the child workers around the world work half time, and they do so to afford their education. If we boycott those factories that provide these opportunities for children in poor countries, we only make a bad problem worse.
An argument often used is that it is oppressive regimes that force children to work, so that they can keep the youth "in check". This might or might not be true, but supposing it is. What almost always happens, across the board, when sanctions and boycotts are implemented against oppressive regimes? Who suffers the most? The dictators? Or the oppressed people? In many cases, sanctions actually weakens the people opposing the oppressive regimes, and it strengthens the dictators, as was the case with Saddam Hussein.
It is important to remember that we all want the same thing: Children not to have to work, to be able to enjoy their childhood, to receive an education. But we have to realize that when we become fanatical about an issue, like the beautiful girl I met at the play, we are often blinded to the complexities of that issue. To be against child labor, should not mean that it can come at any cost. Sometime the solution is the problem itself. If a country can develop an economy where child labor is prohibited, it needs to be able to trade and be allowed to grow. Boycotts would only bring to a halt such a development.
I´ll finish with a quote from Save The Children (Sweden):
"In most cases the Swedish Save the Children says no to boycotts, sanctions, and other trade-related measures against the employment of children. Experience has shown that the children who have to leave their jobs as a consequence of such measures risk finding themselves in more difficult situations and more harmful occupations...
... General assertions that child labor is a good or bad thing serve little purpose... To regard all occupations as equally unacceptable is to simplify a complicated issue and makes it more difficult to concentrate forces against the worst forms of exploitations."
(Faktablad om barnarbete, http://www.rb.se, assessed May 1, 2001)