Letter: Child labour at home and abroad

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Sir: The difficult problem of how to tackle child labour in India is discussed in a letter from Randhir Singh Bains (5 January). All the evidence I have seen indicates that the situation of child workers and their families throughout the world is even more desperate in 1993 than it was in the 1970s when David Elliman and I were moved to write our book Child Workers Today.

It is normal for children to be cruelly exploited at work at times and places where many adults are unemployed, where trade unions focus on short-term rather than long-term problems, where enforcement agencies are understaffed and underfunded, where social consciences have been eroded, and where the press has reasons for keeping quiet.

This sadly applies to a large part of the world, including Britain. If the Independent were to launch an inquiry into how its newspapers are delivered, and if it were to send reporters on to the suburban streets of Britain at 6.30 or 7am, it would find a raggle-taggle army of cold children and young people carrying damaging heavy loads, and riding unlit bicycles on dark streets just as bleary-eyed motorists are launching their vehicles on to those streets in a desperate attempt to get to work on time. And not an enforcement officer to be found.

You could, of course, distance yourselves from this by saying: 'It is not we, the Independent, who employ the children; it is the local newsagents.' Similarly, in India and most other countries children are, on the evidence I have seen, mainly employed in tiny companies whose proprietors are themselves little above the poverty line, and who are far down the chain of supply from the transnational companies and UK importers. The latter carefully refrain from thinking too closely about how the goods are produced.

Virtually no one occupies the moral high ground except the small voluntary organisations who are trying to provide alternative work - safe, reasonably paid, and for reasonable hours - and education to the children.

What is needed is a recognition that there is a moral horror in which we are all involved, and which can be eliminated if we can, together, generate the moral and political will to take the necessary actions.

Yours faithfully,

JAMES CHALLIS

Malaga, Spain

6 January

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