2. Child labour in developing nations
We always do our best to ascertain whether a company is likely to be using child labour as cheap or slave labour and steer well clear. Of course these days no exporting company from India or the far east is likely to admit it, so a degree of common sense and a nose for such things is important.
Exported products usually command a higher price than the local market so there really is no commercial pressure on manufacturers to cut costs to such a degree at the risk of losing a lucrative export order. The deliberate systematic use of child labour is unnecessary and in our opinion an act of pure greed. However - and this is a tricky however, the reality is that culturally in small family businesses children are a part of the business.
In India for example a lot of components of craft work is produced by out-workers in the villages. There are over a million villages in India relying on farming and craft work as a means of income. A village will hand down particular craft skills from generation to generation and rely on this for extra income. Most villages still don’t have electricity or running water, but most children will attend a morning school.
In the afternoons children will help in what is essentially the family business.
We decided that we wanted to visit a village and in February 2006 on a trip to Calcutta managed to persuade one of our suppliers to accompany us on a trip to visit an outlying village.
The truth is that the villages of India are a massive collective cottage industry. It is superbly organised with agents representing villages or groups and ferrying materials in and finished goods back. Each area of the country has it’s own special skills handed down the generations. What do they make? That ethnic skirt you are wearing, the shirt, jute bag, those wooden toys, and the beads in your fashion jewellery - all made in the villages of India. Factories exist of course, but often the overspill work finds it’s way to the villages. This discovery disturbed us. I worried that exploitation might be endemic in this cottage industry culture so I was determined to go and see for myself.
We stopped the car at a small shack like shop and the second as we alighted from our 4x4 dozens of small children came running, but surprisingly they didn’t beg or tug at us (like in the city) they just came to smile and stare unabashed at the rare white faces we stared back and smiled. My man in Calcutta (to whom this was also an adventure) asked the guy in the shack if it would be OK to visit the village, a huge brilliant white smile provided the affirmative answer. So we trouped off down a neat well-maintained brick path like pied pipers of Hamlin with a crowd of kids laughing and skipping behind us. Shortly we came to the village; on each side of the path at intervals lay inward looking compounds made up of mud-brick buildings around an inner courtyard where the families worked ate and in the heat of summer slept. We asked if it was OK to enter one - of course it was - and all the kids crushed in after us. Immediately we found the fabled cottage industry in full swing, this village specialised in creating lavish sequinned saris as worn by the socialite urban ladies. There stretched between bamboo poles was the current creation – a real family business with every generation involved, including dare I say children. They tell me that many craft skills are jealously guarded and passed unwritten down the generations.
But this was not a rat infested slum buzzing with mosquitoes, it was devoid of any modern amenity including electricity but everywhere was neat and tidy. The atmosphere was industrious with everyone smiling. We discovered that the children attended a morning school a mile or so back up the road but what struck me most was that absolutely everyone had Hollywood smiles – perfect sets of gleaming white teeth.
This is only one village in a million, although we did see other fishing villages in the Sunderbans similar but it’s certainly not the third world poverty I half expected. If anything the life style we glimpsed here seems to be a peaceful kind of utopia. The one thing that everyone tells you about village people is that they are good people, they are honest people and they are hard working people.