Walaa Idris: Is child labour in countries we trade with unavoidable?
Walaa Idris, Chairman of Hans Town Ward in Kensington & Chelsea, considers whether we can realistically expect countries we trade with to have the same working standards as us.
I was at the CWO conference on Monday. Thanks to Fiona Hodgson and her dynamic team the day was well thought out, well planned, and well attended. It covered everything from Women Empowerment to Women as Peacemakers and was appropriately closed by David Cameron’s speech on “The need to end sexual violence against women”.
There was a discussion on “Africa - a continent of extremes”, about how to empower women and women enterprises in the developing world. The general consensus was by buying their goods and products and by supporting free trade we give these women a fighting chance to support themselves and families. One of the questions asked was how can we in the UK be confident that the goods and products sold by these enterprises are not stained by child labour. There were lots of interesting suggestions about how we can safeguard the integrity of these goods.
This provoked a question that has been nagging me. In African countries which have been torn apart by war, whole villages have perished with the exception of a few young children. There is no government support, no aid organization and no adult supervision to help them. Children in this position have to work to support themselves and their younger brothers and sisters. Do we class children working as a result of these tragic circumstances as child labourers, whose products we ought to boycott?
Another example of the kind of moral dilemmas involved that I have come across is that of a weaver with no husband, who lost the use of half her body and is seriously disabled. Her 10 year old helps her with household chores and weaving. Do we buy the baskets they produce or does that constitute child labour?
Most developing countries do not have the economic and social infrastructure to support disabled people and families where there are no parents. People in extremely difficult circumstances are dependent on informal and intergenerational transfers usually from their families or neighbours. They cannot afford our kind of social protection.
They also recognise that well-intended attempts to insist on European or North American social protection being applied to international trade with developing countries also fits neatly with less benevolent agenda. This is a deliberate attempt to ensure that developing countries cannot compete against advanced economies by making use of their principal resource: competitively priced labour.
Over the last forty years when international trade has been liberalised the slowest progress in removing trade barriers has been in areas such as agricultural products and textiles. These are sectors where developing economies have potential trade advantages.
Representatives of the world’s big trading blocs have often spoken with forked tongues. Preaching free trade while trying to impose the very rules of employment and social protection that would make it difficult for developing countries to export competitively given their levels of labour productivity.
Perhaps the best conclusion is that a one-size-fits-all approach to policy no more works in the context of international trade that it does nationally in the UK.