That Despicable Child Labour Racket

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.

11 comments on “That Despicable Child Labour Racket

  1. I couldn’t help shaking my head at this:

    The Primark Better Lives Foundation will provide financial assistance to organisations devoted to improving the lives of young people, including those identified by the BBC.

    If you’re that keen on improving their lives, I’m not sure firing them all was an ideal first step.

  2. The question is, if you give some charidee a tenner, how much does the poor starving orphan get, compared to buying a pair of jeans or whatever in Primark?

    Having crunched a few numbers (subject to wide margins of error), I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter course of action benefitted them more. Plus you get a pair of jeans.

  3. It’s contemptible to even advocate child labour in such circumstances – it is simply slavery by another name. You can call it indentured servitude – whatever but that’s what it is: slavery.

    No, I don’t accept that this is the only option. I would not buy clothes from Primark that were made in such circumstances, because Primark answers to its customers and its customers do not want clothes made by child slaves. It’s exploitation of orphans by ruthless people – the lowest fucking scumbags of the low.

    I’m astonished that in a so-called civilized society we would even need to justify the increased cost of discretionary items like jeans in order to make sure that the people who made it are well taken care of.

    Instead we have a justification for sweatshops for child orphans as “better than the alternative”

    I’m extraordinarily disappointed with you Tim. I had hoped you knew better than to make such a foul argument as this.

    End. Of. Discussion.

    Tim adds: Not the end of the discussion at all. Try this.
    http://www.pkarchive.org/column/42201.html
    “Even when political action doesn’t backfire, when the movement gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets � and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.”

    “The most sophisticated answer was that the movement doesn’t want to stop exports � it just wants better working conditions and higher wages.

    But it’s not a serious position. Third-world countries desperately need their export industries � they cannot retreat to an imaginary rural Arcadia. They can’t have those export industries unless they are allowed to sell goods produced under conditions that Westerners find appalling, by workers who receive very low wages. And that’s a fact the anti- globalization activists refuse to accept. So who are the bad guys? The activists are getting the images they wanted from Quebec City: leaders sitting inside their fortified enclosure, with thousands of police protecting them from the outraged masses outside. But images can deceive. Many of the people inside that chain-link fence are sincerely trying to help the world’s poor. And the people outside the fence, whatever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor even poorer. ”

    Sorry there John, but the universe doesn’t offer all people all options. It offers a disturbingly large number of people a rather short list of mostly shitty ones: and we shouldn’t, in our moral outrage, make that list even smaller nor shittier.

    So I’ll repeat: yup, I’m all in favour of child labour for I’m all against child prostitution and child starvation.

  4. Tim is right. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Lefties always insist on unattainable perfection, and if the perfect is not promised them, start to throw vitriol.

  5. “Primark answers to its customers and its customers do not want clothes made by child slaves.”

    Their sales figures show otherwise.

  6. John A, “End. Of. Discussion.”? I missed the part of the “discussion” in which you came up with a viable alternative. Most of the world does not have the free education, universal healthcare, welfare etc. that we’re fortunate to experience in the west. Of course we westerners find the idea of child labour distasteful, but if all child labour was banned worldwide, the sad fact is that very many children would face a much harsher life.

  7. Can’t help but wish John A had read a history book once in his life.
    In 18th century Britain we had children younger than 11 working in factories in conditions just as bad. And glad to do it. Why? Because working in a relatively warm dry factory with a meal at the end of the day was a great improvement on looking at the south end of a northbound ox ploughing a field in the driving rain for longer hours without the surety of the meal. That’s the reality of subsistence agriculture.
    It’s a bit of luck there weren’t too many John A’s about then refusing to buy cheap cotton goods or we might never have had an industrial revolution.

  8. It’s incredible that in the 21st Century I watch people justify child labour employment practices belonging to the ealry 19th Century and using the same arguments that the poor mill owners would have to raise prices if they weren’t allowed to use children, and that the orphans would starve if they weren’t allowed to work.

    Bullshit.

    I also find it astonishing that we have people on this website not distinguishing between fungible goods like oil which has a worldwide price set on it, and highly discretionary goods like fashionable jeans where the value is set mainly by the reputation of the fashion label.

    So it isn’t good business for Primark to continue to use child labour to produce its line of jeans, because its customers (western women with discretionary income who can afford to make choices based on fashion) would turn and despise the label.

    That means that Primark will have to break contracts with the scumbags, sorry, business owners, making clear that the children must be educated for at least a few hours a day and have strict conditions set upon the amount of time spent working and the conditions of that work – or face not being able to sell those jeans at all. (see Tim? I didn’t call for the factories to be closed down, only the working conditions altered)

    PJ:

    Can’t help but wish John A had read a history book once in his life. In 18th century Britain we had children younger than 11 working in factories in conditions just as bad.

    Its a shame you didn’t read on, because then you’d have found that the same lousy arguments were used to perpetuate child labour then as Tim has attempted to deploy now.

    Try cracking a history book before replying.

    Tim:

    In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.”

    Quite. Which is why its bad business and bad economics to ignore the social conditions of the workers in a global free market – because nobody wins.

    Primark cannot afford to use this form of child labour even though it (temporarily) maximizes profits, because of the highly discretionary nature of its business and the foibles of its key market. This is a globally connected, 24 hour, YouTube fixated world where Primark’s fashion business could be ruined in minutes right around the world if those factories are shown. Then nobody wins.

    So what it is to be done?

    Dismantle the fucking useless and incompetent carbon emissions market, and use the money to feed and educate the poor and the orphans (ie do some good). Maybe we could tap Al Gore for a few million of the fortune he’s made selling indulgences carbon credits…

    Or alternatively do what other Western businesses do, which is to regulate the employment and social conditions of the people who produce the goods, in particular to insist on education of a few hours a day for the children, to fix a minimum wage which must be paid, and to limit the working day and the working week for employees.

    I don’t live in some effete soft lefty world where everyone can feel good all of the time. I accept that in the 3rd world, the basic necessities of life and the economic realities of business in such places make the employment of children a necessity – but this is not just employment but endentured slavery.

    I know it. Tim knows it. And Primark’s customers won’t wear it.

    Tim adds: If you’re suggesting that the children should still be employed but that Primark and others might insist on a tad of education for them as well: I’m with you. My argument with what is happening started with hte point that the children have all been fired….which isn’t a good thing.

  9. “highly discretionary goods like fashionable jeans where the value is set mainly by the reputation of the fashion label”

    you’ve not been to Primark recently, have you?

  10. Tim:

    If you’re suggesting that the children should still be employed but that Primark and others might insist on a tad of education for them as well: I’m with you. My argument with what is happening started with hte point that the children have all been fired….which isn’t a good thing.

    That’s true, but if Primark or French Connection or Benetton or whoever wants to do the right thing then having a local representative who states upfront what a Western fashion house is prepared to tolerate in employment conditions in return for allowing children to work on clothes for them, is the way to go BEFORE the abuse begins, not after.

    The incentive is clearly that if an employer in India would like a higher margin of a Western fashion house, then they’d have to accept that they’re not going to make as much profit as they thought by hiring orphan children on thruppence a day and pocketing the difference.

    I think I’ve now gotten through to people that application of capitalism without comprehension of social impacts is a very high risk strategy for a Western importer of discretionary goods.

    Oh, and looking after orphans is India’s responsibility, not Primark’s.

  11. “Oh, and looking after orphans is India’s responsibility, not Primark’s.”

    Of course, India is a very cheap place. You could simply avoid buying some pairs of jeans and save some money and then take yourself and your money to India and start up an ethical factory. For instance.

    DK

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