International Labour Organisation is using the African Cup of nations to launch a "Red card to child labour" slogan. As it happens, India and Pakistan are the biggest producers of footballs for the World Cup and the bulk of those employed are children, estimated to run into thousands. It is wiser to phase out child labour gradually, rather than ban it overnight.
All campaigns against human exploitation of various kinds, as well as drives to eliminate dreaded diseases around the globe, rely on innovative methods to draw attention to their cause. In a world which is getting increasingly commercialised, these campaigns, however noble, do not get quite the same state and public support as they used earlier. At the same time, with the globalisation of the media, multilateral organisations and NGOs have opportunities to publicise their drives in ways which were inconceivable before.
A classic case in point is the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) campaign to eradicate child labour. It is using what is probably the most popular sports event in the entire world, including the Olympics - football's World Cup - to highlight this cause.
As a kickoff, it is using the African cup of nations, which began in January and will end on February 10, to launch a "Red card to child labour" slogan. It is spending $ 125,000 to get all African countries where these football games are being held to publicise the slogan.
The Global March Against Child Labour wants to put pressure on Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) to make this the first international event which is totally free of child labour and
complies with fair labour standards. The sports good industry is known to employ children, whether it is making tootballs or cricket balls and other equipment. The campaigners hope to get all participating countries to boycott goods that are made by children as well as families (often working in their own homes) who do not get the minimum wage.
As it happens, India and Pakistan are the biggest producers of footballs for the World Cup and the bulk of those employed are children, estimated to run into thousands. When Global March activists visited Jalandhar, they found even 10-year-olds engaged in stitching footballs. FIFA did introduce a code of conduct in 1998 which requires nations participating in its events to prohibit child labour and provide minimum working conditions and wages for adult hands.
This has been observed more in the breach. And, according to an ILO official this columnist met in Geneva in December, FIFA is reluctant to force the issue for the World Cup this June. The propaganda value of the red card campaign can hardly be overemphasised. This is not only the most played sport in the world but has millions of young fans who are sure to sympathise with the plight of children - if they don't happen to be young workers themselves. The red card is something which every fan will recognise as a punishment for an offence, which makes the point very neatly. ILO is constantly on the lookout for such opportunities.
It was able to persuade Youssou N'Dour, the popular African singer, to place the International programme for the elimination of child labour sticker on 600,000 of his audiocassettes. These include a song titled "My hope is in you" which he sang at a major concert in Paris in 2000. According to a FIFA official, there were monitoring systems in place to guard against such goods, though it had been "in talks with our partners to improve this aspect of the project."
A Dutch campaigner who authored a study last year titled "The Dark Side of Football", detailing labour conditions in the Punjab football industry, cites how an industrybacked monitoring system is in place. This is somewhat like expecting the fox to be in charge of the chicken coop!
He confirms that the system lacks transparency and there is no public information about its functioning or findings. The situation in China, he finds, is no better, if that is any consolation.
The ILO works in 75 countries and has field offices in some of these. Its campaigns are based on surveys, which feed into action programmes. The drives are highly decentralised, with ILO only providing a catalytic role. It expects governments to take the lead, so that the campaign is nationally owned. In the case of child labour, however, this poses problems because many governments may not even admit that they resort to child labour since it is bad for exports.
This is especially true of certain industries, like weaving carpets and other such occupations, where deft, little fingers are at a premium. The campaign for the eradication of child labour focuses on 38 countries where the problem is most acute but prior to launching any programme, conducts interviews with 100 children in each, so that the information is qualitative as well.
The incentive, as far as governments are concerned, is that those who play by the rules qualify for aid. Industrial countries, on occasion, put their money where their mouths are: the US department of labour, for instance, contributes $ 30 million a year to support surveys. The Dutch and Norwegian governments too have been funding programme. India itself has obtained $ 80 million to wipe out the worst and most hazardous forms of child work, including bonded labour. The ILO believes in working with tripartite committees, consisting of employers, workers and governments.
NGOs have been very active in this regard, nationally and globally. The Global March culminated with 500 converging in Geneva in 1998 and helped focus on the issue worldwide. Children were part of the march, whose participants kept changing, and their testimonies at round table conferences before MPs were a moving experience.
India and other countries in south Asia have been the major offenders in employing children even in the most hazardous and strenous occupations. In the 1990s, US senator Tom Harkins had introduced a bill to seek a boycott of such goods. This is by no means a solution to this admittedly complex problem. Sheer poverty drives children into the arms of employers; the absence of such employment could drive families into even worse penury.
On the other hand, it is true that if employers were barred from hiring young hands, they would be forced to employ adults and would necessarily have to pay them more. To complicate the situation further, there is more than a strong suspicion that many moves - senator Harkin's bill not excluded - are motivated more by protectionism, to safeguard domestic industries in the North, than by humanitarian concerns.
The answer, as this columnist has been arguing for several years, is to eliminate all forms of child labour in hazardous industries like firecrackers, as the Indian government has legislated but still does not enforce. In the rest, it is wiser to phase out child labour gradually, rather than ban it overnight.
In the interim, employers could be compelled to set aside a couple of hours for the children to be educated and trained in other skills at the former's expense. This would ensure that they could find
alternative forms of employment, instead of being thrown onto the streets. And certain minimum wages and work conditions have to be enforced by the inspectors. In the Punjab football industry, for example, even the adults do not earn a living wage, which forces children to supplement their family income.
Finally, the contentious issue of a global boycott of goods made with such labour. There have been such moves against carpets and the like. Countries in the North have asked for goods to carry a label specifying that they are made without this labour. But, for reasons already stated, this could well prove counterproductive and may be prompted by protectionist policies anyway.
Instead, the North could well make a positive contribution. Consumers could pay a cess on such goods, which finds its way into a global fund (why not managed by the ILO?), with which children are educated and retrained. This would really test whether consumers have the children's interests at heart or are swayed by other considerations.