A gap in intentions
With the festive season upon us, be sure that there will be an outpouring of concern for the millions of children who toil to give us fireworks, bangles, textiles and other gifts. Once the bright lights go out, so does our concern. Till the next year. But in a globalised world, where in our new avatar as the world’s second fastest growing economy, we have been demanding a level playing field in trade, our ugly and ill-concealed secret has come to haunt us. The first salvo this season has been fired by American apparel giant Gap that has pulled Indian clothes off its shelves on the ground that child labour was used to make them. Of course, we are apoplectic with rage. After all, don’t we have the largest number of anti-child labour laws in the world? Never mind if we also have the largest number of child workers, estimated anywhere between 15-60 million.
The latest law is the Abolition of Child Labour Bill 2006 that prohibits children from any work that causes physical strain and denies them access to education. That nothing of the sort has happened does not bear repeating. The Gap example, however, should make India Inc. sit up and take note. Simply put, child labour is bad for business when we are seeking to capture markets abroad. Earlier the EU and the US had threatened to pull the plug on handmade carpets as they involved child labour. This could spell doom for the $ 800 million industry. Similarly, foreign buyers are taking a closer look at conditions in which goods from developing countries are made before placing orders. Competitive prices are not enough anymore in an increasingly human rights conscious Western world. While a child labourer may come cheap, when he grows into an adult, chances are that he will not be as productive as he would have been had he been educated.
Which brings us to the hoary old chestnut of education for all. Yes, it will cost a pretty penny to ensure education for all. But it’s worth it in a world where skilled workers will drive economies. For a nation so conscious of its global image, we don’t seem to care a tuppence about the sight of millions of children on the streets engaged in all forms of labour. This makes it that much more difficult to sell the lie that children are not involved in making export products.