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December 9, 1999


The Rediff Business Interview/Kailash Satyarthi

'Govt's hypocritical: it welcomes foreign investors but refuses to hear them on child labour'

The World Trade Organisation's ministerial conference in Seattle last fortnight has sharply brought into focus labour standards. India is considered a major culprit: millions of her children slog at workplaces when they ought to be in school. Yet, over the years, the government has shown little will in tackling the problem.

In the absence of governmental action, non-governmental organisations have worked towards eliminating the exploitation of labour, including child labour.

Kailash Satyarthi chairs the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, an NGO that has been fighting against child labour for nearly two decades. He speaks to Amberish K Diwanji on the issues of social clause, child labour and trade. Excerpts.

Child labour is rampant in India Can you give a brief background of the debate over child labour in the WTO?

The issue developed over two streams of thought. One was from the USA and France and some other developed countries. This was supported by GATT (the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) in the early days.

Some governments wanted to incorporate the minimum labour standards. One of the reasons they gave was that it would be very difficult to control the multinational corporations who were scouring the world in search of cheap labour.

Email this interview to a friend Since MNCs apply multiple standards in different countries, these governments felt that there should be a minimum standard applicable for labour. Later on, the aspects of environment and child labour were added to these demands. Thus three aspects came under the social clause.

The second stream came from the developing countries, mainly India and Malaysia, which took the lead. These countries outright rejected the developed countries' demand on labour standards, terming the same as each country's internal matter, and depending on culture, tradition and economic priorities.

Then some laws and bills were introduced in the US calling for a ban on import of goods that were made by child labour. This has created a lot of problems for many countries, particularly Bangladesh, where a number of American countries were making goods using child labour. It also affected certain industries such as garments, carpet manufacturers, etc.

What caused such bills to be introduced in the western countries? And what was/is the attitude of the MNC?

The multinationals do not support the social clause bills. These bills were imposed by western governments, under pressure from workers and trade unions. And, of course, many non-governmental organisations were involved in seeking to curb the menace of child labour.

But my contention is that both the views are not 100 per cent justified.

So what is your view about these pressures?

The developing countries fear that the social clause could be used as protectionist measures to prevent goods made by cheap labour flooding their markets, and that the child labour aspect could be used to dictate terms to the poor nations. In some ways, the poor countries' fear is not wrong and it cannot be written off completely.

The other school of thought is that there should be absolutely no linkage between trade and labour. This is also not fully justified, because if you look at the present scenario and future trade trends, in this globalised era, we cannot remain confined to one country. And it is not just a question of capital but also of labour.

Also, if we decide that it is necessary to introduce some regulations to ensure minimum standards, then the rules need to have teeth, otherwise the trading system will be uncontrollable. For instance, the MNCs have so much money and power, how does one control them?

On the other hand, developing nations who are opposed to social clause have no moral or ethical right to do so -- and this includes India. Most of the countries opposing the social clause have guarantees and rights in their constitution and laws for minimum labour standards. For instance, India has laws against bonded labour and against child labour in hazardous occupations.

Thus, if consumers abroad declare that they will not use items such as garments, carpets, leatherwear, gems, etc -- most of which India exports -- that have been made by child labour, then I see nothing wrong in it. After all, Indian laws are against such labour exploitation.

So you are saying such boycott is justified?

Totally! If an American or German or Briton does not want to wear jeans made by the sweat and blood of a child in Dhaka or Jalandhar or Bangkok, then it is up to him. We cannot dictate terms to him. That is the choice of the consumers.

So what we have been suggesting is that in principle there must be some linkage between trade and labour standards. There is no question about it. There must be some social clause. But such social clauses must not be used for protectionist measures by the rich.

If the social clause is seen as a protectionist tactic, which other method is there to fight child labour?

In this whole debate, supporters against child labour have not been able to prescribe any independent monitoring mechanism. Who will decide that so-and-so country does not adhere to the labour standards or that so-and-so company has been using child labour? If some group within the WTO is to monitor, then it can be misused anytime.

Hence, what we have been demanding is that the WTO must mobilise the services of other existing labour organisations. The International Labour Organisation (a United Nations' body) is ideal for the purpose -- incidentally, the Indian delegation at the WTO meet has made the same suggestion -- along with a number of independent organisations who are working in the area of child labour or environmental issues. This could be an effective monitoring system under the UN or WTO.

However, the WTO has not agreed so far.

We have suggested that such a body be set up, involving representatives from both the rich and poor countries, and it be helped in eliminating child labour. If a particular company or country does not meet the minimum requirements, then it should be warned before action is taken.

Would you say that the entire issue of child labour has become politicised between the rich and poor countries while the real issue is being neglected?

Yes, certainly! No country has shown the political will to actually eliminate child labour. One example is that most of the developing countries don't even spend one per cent of their GNP on primary education. Exceptions are countries like Sri Lanka and Turkey. India spends only 1 per cent on primary education, Pakistan 0.8 per cent. On the other hand, countries that talk of universalisation of education such as the US, they don't earmark even 1 per cent of their total overseas development aid for primary education in developing countries. Thus both sides are guilty.

Who are the people against anti-child labour legislation in India?

It is the vested interest of some in the ruling elite. Take the carpet industry, one culprit. Recently, bandit-turned-member of Parliament Phoolan Devi said there is no child labour in India and the law against child labour should be abolished. The general suspicion seems to be that she might be getting funds from the carpet industries because where she gets elected from -- the Mirzapur belt in central Uttar Pradesh -- is the area where such carpets are made. Then there is the glass industry in Firozabad area. The owners have support of the politicians who in turn keep quiet.

Since they employ child labour, they don't have to pay the minimum statutory wages. They pay less but on paper show much more and the difference goes to the owners who employ children. This money is used to bribe the politicians and bureaucrats.

What is the estimated number of child labourers? And how does it affect adult labour?

Our estimate is that there are 60 million child labourers in India. Some estimates, including that of UNICEF, put it at 120 million. The government estimate is 11.8 million.

Our key argument has been that every child employed deprives a job to an adult. There are around 65 million jobless adults. At the time of Independence, there were ten million unemployed adults and ten million child labourers. The growth of unemployment is linked to the growth of child labour.

Our studies have also found that very often, employers prefer to hire children from a particular family rather than the father or mother because children are paid less and are easier to exploit. Children don't form unions! So it is a vicious circle -- children employed in place of parents.

Did the Indian government hold consultations on child labour before the WTO meet?

No, nothing of that sort! The government only met people from the CII and FICCI (apex business chambers) but did not meet anyone concerning child labour.

The Indian government has always lacked a serious political will to tackle the problem of child labour. It is extremely hypocritical that the Indian government is keen to welcome foreign investors, their money and technology, but refuses to hear them talk about child labour.

Child labour is used in almost all industries in India There were many protests against child labour involved in making things like Nike shoes. How important are these protests that involve consumers?

Consumer awareness is perhaps the key to fighting child labour, as mentioned earlier. It was the protest by our partners against the use of child labour in the making of Nike and Reebok shoes in factories in the developing countries that raised consumer awareness worldwide and forced these huge MNCs to change their practices.

The same thing happened in the case of woolen garments. We began a system whereby all garments made without child labour had the Rugmark label. An independent agency or NGO gives this label. It was and is a huge success, and so we know this type of a solution can be replicated in other industries.

The best example was the 'foul ball' case. Soccer balls were made by children in Pakistan and some groups raised a stink. These groups then asked children in the US to not buy such products made by children. The success was immense and the Pakistani industries were forced to change their practices and get independent confirmation of the same.

We are using the same tactics when two years ago we asked children not to buy firecrackers made by poor children. Around 150,000 children are involved in this practice and this year, there was a drop of 30 per cent in the sale of firecrackers.

What is the solution you propose to end child labour?

The best solution is to provide primary education and make it compulsory. By forcing children to go to school, you keep them out of factories and workshops. Also, the suggestion that there can be schools and part-time jobs does not work, because almost all the children are employed in the unorganised sector and it is impossible to monitor them to ensure that part-time labour is part-time and does not become full-time. This is the best and most workable solution.

Then, we must identify child-labour-prone areas and develop comprehensive programmes to eliminate the problems. For instance, there is a clear linkage between the lack of land reforms and high child labour incidences, whereas where land reforms have taken place, child labour is virtually absent.

Very often, middle-class people are also guilty of employing small children, usually as household helps and babysitters.

You are right. In fact, it was the abuses inflicted on children who work as house servants that made us protest against government employees hiring children. And just last month the government has passed an order that no government employee can hire a servant below the age of 14. But the middle class is guilty of such crimes and the solution lies in other people boycotting families that employ children or protesting against such practices.

Website of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude



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