Tesco, Child Labour and Bangladesh

Meanwhile Tesco, that giant that wants to stomp all over the world apparently is caught in a child labour issue.

The allegations are potentially embarrassing for Tesco, which has prided itself on its strict policy on ethical trading. The supermarket giant is one of the founding members of Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation that promotes codes of practice governing working conditions for suppliers making products which will be sold in the UK.

Under the ETI code, suppliers are banned from employing children under the age of 15. They must also ensure staff are paid “living wages” and do not work excessively long hours.

It’s also interesting how they look at Tesco here by the way. At one point everyone cries themselves hoarse about saving smaller shops, but who doesn’t want cheaper milk and toilet paper? In fact I think the rule about curbing retail activity on the high street on Sundays here has something to do with protecting smaller shops and little to do with the Christian day-off. I feel bad for the likes of Tesco really. No matter what they do, the media loves to pick on them. Also has something to do with the fact that big departmental stores source their wares from outside the UK. But what really caught my eye today was how reporting can get shoddy. Sample this,

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Why does the headline say something about Tesco using child labour in India? Isn’t the report about Bangladesh. Hhmm – Someone hand them a political map of South Asia. Be sure to clearly mark Bangladesh as a country adjacent to India, not inside India please! Even as Channel 4 gets all excited about uncovering how unethical South Asia is when it comes to data handling and children, it might be interesting to read this

As a result, garment employers dismissed about three-quarters of all children employed in the industry. With no access to education and few skills, the children had few alternatives to escape their crushing poverty. Many went looking for new jobs in stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution – all more hazardous and exploitative than garment making. Recognizing the need for action, UNICEF and the Ipec programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) began talks with industry leaders in 1993 to find a solution.


Update
– More links

A discussion at the The Argus Forum which sort of underlines that it is Tesco’s responsibility to know where they are sourcing their products from and who makes them. Channel 4′s story and the link to video here. (May not play if accessed outside of the UK).

My guess is that most people in developed countries do not understand the distinction between working in a hazardous industry and other industries. Where exactly does Child Labour end? Even if say a company like Tesco decides to buy clothes only made in the UK or from factories that are declared Child Labour free, will they manage to trace which bale of cotton came from a farm that uses Child Labour? Products are not plucked off factories. The primary sector world over largely uses cheap labour which translates to child labour. You cannot yank a child off his or her livelihood. There is a reason why children work – their parents cannot support them or the child is trying to support him/herself because it would mean abuse at home. Education is not a guarantee in these countries. In the absence of a state that is able to provide a minimum level of education, comfort and safety, a child can only strive to support his or her own self.

Not that any of it justifies child labour – it just underlines how hard it is to say some product is child labour free. Cutting and running would plunge these children into hardship far worse than they are in now. Not that Tesco is bound to consider any of this – but it just calls for rethinking the Ethical Trading Initiative.

This gets even more interesting. Tesco now looks at Channel4 with strange eyes. Because Channel4 could have prevented further exploitation of these children by reporting it months earlier instead of waiting for so long.

It also said that two of the factories involved had not been authorised to produce Tesco clothing, and this had now ceased. Authorised factories, which have age checks in place, had been visited in the last week and no evidence of child labour was found, a Tesco spokesman said.

“We are very disappointed that Channel 4 has waited three months to bring this matter to our attention and, despite repeated requests, did not allow us to see any evidence of their claims before broadcast,” he added.

“We abhor child labour and feel that Channel 4 had a duty to alert us earlier if these allegations are true.

6 Comments

Filed under Marketplace and All Things Current, Random Links, South Asia, UK

6 Responses to Tesco, Child Labour and Bangladesh

  1. Ian McDonald

    Yes. I agree. This story was presented as important as it impacted on the current major issues of corporate social responsibility(CSR) and business ethics.

    The real question which it highlighted is the difficulties faced by retail companies in policing CSR-related contract terms in their off-shored supply chains.

    The primary deterrent and penalty on delinquent suppliers is that when they break these contract terms, the retailer can cancel all contracts and readily switch to alternative low cost suppliers in India, etc. Would Tesco then be applauded in their developed economy consumer markets for taking firm, but fair, action to sort out this problem of illicit child labour and so demonstrating that they uphold their “ethical” policy on this.

    This “cut and run” response would be disastrous for those suppliers and their employees and hurt a developing economy’s primary export industry. and “what would they do then? poor things!” In ethical appraisals, there has to be an appreciation of alternative outcomes and unintended, perverse consequences of apparently “ethical” actions.

    In terms of ethical behaviour, it is noteworthy that the ITN journalists gained entry to these factories by falsely posing as representatives of a fictional clothing exporter!

    Doubtless, the pretended justification for this deception will be that the end justifies the means! History demonstrates that this justification is highly questionable in terms of ethics.

  2. Ian McDonald: My guess is that Channel4 is more inclined towards exposing why outsourcing corrupts Britain’s morals and ethics as opposed to reflecting on how difficult it is to keep checks in large retain companies.

    The problem is also of the Channel being judgemental without even comprehending on the magnitude and context of child labour. And yes, you’re right – if it’s ethics they are reporting on – then their story gathering technique is rather self-defeating.

  3. GG

    “With no access to education and few skills, the children had few alternatives to escape their crushing poverty. Many went looking for new jobs in stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution – all more hazardous and exploitative than garment making.”

    This reminded me of something. Years ago, when I talked of boycotting fireworks made by child labour in Sivakasi, my parents asked me a similar question – if no one buys these fireworks how will they feed themselves?
    gg

  4. It is sad to see how little understanding there is of the enormous damage done by child labour. It is so easy for those in Europe to say, “but these kids are different, its their culture, they don’t know any different, who will feed them if they don’t work?”

    Would those who make these remarks send their own children of 10, 11 and twelve years old to work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Would they let their employer beat them when they make a mistake or cry for their mothers?

    The tragedy of child labour is that it begets poverty. Today’s working children are likely to become the parents of the next generation of working children!

    Those retailers sourcing products from whatever source have a responsibility to ensure that their manufacture is undertaken in conditions that are not exploitative just as they ensure that quality standards are maintained.

    And when problems are uncovered they should work with the supplier to eliminate these rather than quitting the factory and ‘cutting and running’. Accordingly, when child labour is found in the supply chain the brand or retailer concerned needs to work with their supplier and the families of the children to ensure that they are taken out of work and placed in school while the family’s lost income is replaced preferably by the employment of an adult member of the same family or extended family. In this way the family will be better off as children are often paid only one fifth of the adult wage.

    Lest anyone be under any illusions about child labour it is a sobering thought that children as young as four or five years have been found working in the garment industry and that statistics suggest that half of Pakistan’s working children die before the age of 12 years.

    So much for the ‘beneficial’ effects of having children work.

  5. Sri

    Neil, while it is difficult to argue with philosophy behind your stance, the practicality of it is suspect. “Would they let their employer beat them when they make a mistake or cry for their mothers?” …. the fact remains that some parents do, which reflects the gravity of their situation. Poverty begets child labour and not the other way around.

    In the context of developing countres, one needs to draw a line between child labour and child exploitation. An argument CAN (and in some cases NEEDS to) be made for child labour, while none can be made for child exploitation. As Neha points out, there are cases where children work to escape abuse and support themselves. There are also cases where abject poverty forces parents to look at child labour as the lesser of many evils (like selling their child or forcing them to get married). In such circumstances, the brutal truth is that “child labour” IS beneficial, as long as the work environment is safe.

    The need to appreciate “cutting and running” is paramount as you rightly pointed out. But the practical solution may not be substituting children with adults because: 1. Education is not free 2. Even if education were to be free, families may be so large as to demand an extra working hands and in many cases these may be the hands of children 3. (to counter the assumption that adults would take up the job) Adults may already have a marginally better paying job!

    A more practical solution is to ensure that if children are being used, they are not “exploited”, in the contextual sense of the word (not necessarily western). As long as employers can ensure: 1. a minimum age limit 2. humane working environment and reasonable work hours 3. access to education, maybe a school where children study on alternate days!, child labour will not translate into exploitation and definitely be beneficial.

    Today’s children working in a humane environment, may well be tomorrow’s “less-desperate” parents and child labour in many cases, may be a girl child’s passport to life!

  6. This entire cycle cannot be broken overnight. There is a reason why these children have to work in the first place. The whole rot about uneducated parents feeds into the myth. Even the most illiterate parents in India or anywhere else are willing to send their children to schools. The issue as Sri also points out is that Education isn’t easy to get hold of.

    The schools are so bad that after five years of schooling the child can’t even write his or her own name, add numbers or read five lines. If the quality of eduation is so poor, parents find it more prudent that a child works instead of wasting more time going to a school with a lousy teacher, and more likely – a teacherless school. The MidDay Meal scheme works because the children are atleast getting a meal if not an education.

    While it is true that child labour adds to the poverty cycle because the children never are qualified enough to earn more than their parents – It is also true that the strategic needs of the child are to be able to 1. Have greater control on the money they earn, 2. Get an education even as they work. If the education does lead to a better job at some point, you effectively break the cycle. Yanking a child off her livelihood means a worse job – as a commercial sex worker, abusive employers in a domestic work environment etc.

    But the question really is this – what is the concern of a particular person? If you want that Tesco be ethical – yes the fastest route is to Cut and Run. If you have the welfare of these children (which everyone needn’t – one has to pick one’s own causes) – then it’s necessary to redefine ethics.

    Unless you’ve worked with these children, it’s impossible to understand how many children don’t have families. You don’t always have an adult in the family willing to take a up job. Even if the adult does replace the child, it is likely that the girl who is probably aged 12 will end up doing the housework and take care of the younger siblings and not necessarily go to school. The solutions are not linear. They are necessarily wired into a process.