Sunday, November 18, 2007

A ‘Gap'ing disconnect

Abruptly abolishing child labour is counter-productive...

The recent cancellation of a major order by the American apparel retail giant, GAP for the alleged use of children in the manufacture of certain apparels brought to the forth the same old controversy and the malaise surrounding the employment of children. The company pulled back all the smocked blouses, which they procured for Christmas, from all their 3000 stores spread across US and Europe. On the face of it, theoretically, based on morality and business ethics, and an obvious emotional appeal, the stance taken by GAP Inc. stands justified, but in practice the very same stance is not only detrimental but also counter-productive for countries like ours!

To get the correct perspective, one has to understand that the very basic socio-economic paradigm of India and other developing and under-developed countries are essentially much in contrast with that of the developed Western Europe or the US (which is also evident from the UNDP HDR rankings). Researches indicate that child labour in every form tends to disappear when the GDP per capita is around $5,000, whereas the GDP per capita of India currently stands at a mere US $1000. Hence unlike in the developed parts of the world, when a child is employed in countries like ours, it is more to supplement their family incomes, who otherwise struggle to make both ends meet. And it is not that these children are always forced to supply their services (unlike in few odd cases, here and there), it is been observed that child services are rendered mostly by the impoverished families. It is also observed that for families who can afford, basic education for their children still remains a priority, provided the government makes it available. But in a nation which is largely devoid of basic social infrastructure and productive employment opportunities for adults, it is needless to state that a staggering 16.4 million children in the age group of five to 14 years get engaged in petty economic activities and another 46 million stands unaccounted (as neither are they enrolled in any school nor they are officially working). In such an environment, if every GAP of the world too pulls back from productively engaging the child, then more than addressing the issue, they end up snatching away the little esteem that the child thus earns for his family.

It goes without saying that if child labour has to be abolished then first the government and then the business, both have to collectively take up the responsibility and that too in a phased manner – the government has to essentially provide the provision of free and quality education for all children and productive engagement to at least one member of every family. Until and unless that happens, however much it might seem malicious and however much people might call it as a heartless campaign for profiteers, I strongly believe (keeping those moralities aside), that when GAP and the likes, (unknowingly!) provide employment to this hapless generation, they are at least making sure of their survival, and also that their next generation have a better future. Better at least than the present lot.


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