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October 1, 2013
A year after Fairfax Media exposed the illegal child labour practices behind footballs, poor children in India are still found stitching balls bound for Australia.
Invariably, when companies are uncovered preying on the world's poorest children for profit, their defence, beyond denial, is "we didn't know".
They point to codes of conduct, to contracts with suppliers promising ''no child labour'', and to schedules of ''audits'' of their operations.
"Child labour is not unique to the sports balls industry, nor to India." Photo: Peter Braig
If you are 10 years old, working for a dollar a day, your chance at an education and a future cruelled because you were born poor, it makes no difference to you if a boss in another country knows about it.
For an Australian company to knowingly employ illegal child labour is reprehensible. For them not to know it is happening, is negligent. But to the 10-year-old who works for them, it does not matter either way. And a corporate social responsibility charter that says your child labour does not exist, is a fiction.
India is the largest manufacturer of sports balls for the Australian market, shipping 10-million balls into the country every year, nearly one for every two Australians.
After the widespread use of child labour, in Jalandhar, making balls for the Australian market was uncovered by this newspaper last year, the fact that it should still exist is incompetent or, worse, simply uncaring.
Child labour is not unique to the sports balls industry, nor to India. The exploitation of vulnerable workforces – in the garment industry in Bangladesh, in cotton-picking in Uzbekistan, in mining, agriculture and domestic work in Africa – is as global as it is odious.
And it is true that the issue of child labour in the developing world is not as black and white as it is seen in the West.
The families in which children work, are desperately poor. Parents are concerned about earning enough money just so they can eat.
Invariably, children are encouraged into labour. Whatever meagre income they earn can be difference between going hungry and not, between surviving and not.
"I know I am taking away their future, but we need to eat today," more than one parent has told Fairfax. There is a distinction between child work, where children work alongside their parents a few hours a week after school to supplement the family income, and child labour, where children are taken out of school to work; their family dependent on what they earn.
The former is an inescapable fact of children growing up in low-income economies, the latter is a guarantee of a lifetime of poverty.
An industry source in Jalandhar said poor parents in the city face the invidious choice between allowing their children to labour and having them starve.
"Parents know it is illegal, as well as harmful, but they have no option. They don't force their children to work, their circumstances force them," the source said.
Globally, the solution is not to condone child labour as a necessary evil, a callous ''price of doing business'' in an interconnected, international economy.
The solution is for companies that come to countries such as India, to be prepared to perhaps profit a little less, and to pay their adult workforce a working wage that allows them to keep their families fed, with a roof over their heads, and their children in school.
Profits, in particular a culture of ''rock-bottom price'' consumerism in the First World, must not come at the cost of a childhood. Companies should be encouraged to invest, and to stay, in India.
Disavowing the country on the back of bad publicity, abandoning the already broken families they have helped oppress, is the worst thing these businesses can do.
There is profit to be made here, responsibly, and millions of the world's poor can benefit from exposure to global trade.
But to exploit a country's economic disadvantage with a recklessness that endangers children, is craven and unconscionable.