As a sustainability consultant I advise the big and the small, all of whom want to book their place I heaven, or more precisely in the market, for their social and environmental performance. Even knowing various standards inside out as I do it does not prepare you for experiencing the most confronting of social issues, child labour.
I had impressions of this as an unmistakable evil, a form of slavery, a bygone of a pre industrial or colonial age that we are committed to exterminate.
Coming face to face with it made me re-evaluate and I am still conflicted by what I was seeing.
I was in a country on a consulting job, I am not saying where, looking at a tree cropping system.
Let me be clear, In this situation there was no indentured labour, no one owed money to their employer or were being forced to work under threat of violence or withholding of passports or other documents.
The drivers were social and the way they potentially pushed the workers and therefore the employer across a very diffuse definitional line into child labour was not at all clear.
The minimum adult wage in this country is around $150 a fortnight (I have chosen a fictional currency here for the purposes of illustration) but this is designed for urban area. For rural areas the is a legal confusion about the applicability of this and therefore wages can be as low as $50-60 BUT typically benefits like housing, medical benefits, and land for food gardens are over and above any wage. Against this background education costs across the country are between $360 per child per year for elementary rising to $1500 per child per year for 14 – 16 year olds. Large family sizes are the norm, I would say 4 children are the average. You don’t need to do the math’s to arrive at the conclusion that a large amount of children don’t go to school.
Consider these scenarios.
Kids work with their parents on peace time work during peak periods such as harvest. This is a time when the hourly rate goes out the window and the more with you get in the bag the more you can earn.
Therefore in the harvest season, for both a peace time work and family farm situations its all shoulders to the wheel and children traditionally help. Children are definitely at work evenings and after school during these times. Often they are taken out of school to help for the harvest period. Child labour?
In the same scenario children who’s parents cant afford school fees are kicking their heels so kids pitch in, not only with the harvest but with other work. Sometimes the families call spade a spade and ask the companies to put the kids on the payroll and the employer obliges. Even with this affording school fees is often a pipe dream. Child labour?
Programmes such as church groups fundraisers given very few other options, corporate sponsorship not being very thick on the ground in these parts, often rope in children to work on farms. . Child labour?
The company offers defunct tree cropping land free for food garden and cash cropping income for a fixed period of time on the condition that the land clearing is the workers responsibility out or work hours. The kids who can’t afford school often work on the clearing to realize the benefit for the family when their parents are doing other paid work. Child labour?
I am interested in people’s views but please resist the temptation to jump to suggestions like:
“The company should offer assistance with school fees.”
“The company should employ teachers to offer a remote home school programme.”
“The company should have an anti-child labour policy”.
Of course this was suggested to the company through the consultancy and of course they will have to take this sort of action if they want to get certified to a sustainability brand with market acceptance. That’s why these sorts of brands can make a difference and that’s why I believe in them and most of all that is why I do this sort of work.
Let me know your thoughts.