You know, I think some people might have got ahold of the wrong end of the stick here. It was found that at the bottom end of Primark\’s supply chain were some child labourers. This was considered an outrage.
Might I put forward the thought that perhaps sewing clothes for Primark was a step up for these children? Here\’s the story of one of the children named in the investigation:
But at the other end of the world nothing has changed for those tiny links in the chain of supply that is meeting the British appetitive for cheaper and cheaper clothing: children like Mantheesh, who works for one of the sacked suppliers. At 11 her life is already an extraordinary story of survival. An orphan, this Tamil refugee had fled the bombings of Sri Lanka only to find herself abandoned by an opportunistic trafficker on a sandbank 10 miles off land. Exhausted and dehydrated, in the middle of the treacherous Palik Strait, the channel between India and Sri Lanka, she was rescued by fishermen just as the tide was closing over her.
Mantheesh ended up at India\’s Mandapam transit camp, a fenced-off series of dilapidated, one-storey cement blocks, 12 miles from the flat Arichalmunai beachfront, the first port of call for Sri Lankan refugees brought in by smugglers. She traced the path of thousands of her fellow refugees, moving north to the camps of the major textile industry region of Tamil Nadu where menial jobs are available to those desperate enough to take them. Mantheesh went to Bhavanisagar camp, 60km from Tirapur. Within months she was absorbed into India\’s burgeoning economy, hand sewing from dawn to dusk for a businessman who had shrewdly recruited hundreds of refugees on the cheap to make garments destined for half a dozen European firms, including Primark.
11 years old, an orphan, and survivor already of having been abandoned on a sand bank as the tide rose. Yes, of course, we would all like for her to be enjoying a happy and sunshine filled childhood, with regular meals, school to educate her and so on. But that isn\’t in fact what is on offer in her part of the world. This is the next best alternative:
About 76,000 Sri Lankan refugees live in poverty in 102 camps across Tamil Nadu. Several hundred thousands more have been absorbed into India\’s black economy. The state government provides a relief package to those in camps – the head of a family gets 200 Indian rupees, around £3, a month, with smaller payments for additional family members.
And this is what child labour brings her:
\’I go to a house in the camp every day,\’ said Mantheesh. She sat in waist-high piles of Primark garments, many with labels and reference tracking numbers showing their destination in the UK and Ireland. \’Sometimes we get major orders in and we have to work double quick. I am paid a few rupees for finishing each garment, but in a good day I can make 40 rupees (60p). The beads we sew are very small and when we work late at night we have to work by candle – the electricity in the camp is poor.\’
No, it\’s not what I want for myself, not I would want for any child I know, not even what I want for Mantheesh herself: except that, of the available options that sewing is the best one there is.
Is her life going to be made better by hysterics insisting that she should have no work and thus no income? Or should we continue to do the best we can for the poor? Something which, as we all know, means buying the produce of poor people living in poor countries?
Yes, we can also do more than that, but it does seem very strange to start the process of making the world better for such children by denying them the best of the limited range of alternatives that they already have.