Walaa Idris, Chairman of Hans Town Ward in Kensington & Chelsea, considers whether we can realistically expect countries we trade with to have the same working standards as us.
I was at the CWO conference on Monday. Thanks to Fiona Hodgson and her
dynamic team the day was well thought out, well planned, and well
attended. It covered everything from Women Empowerment to Women as
Peacemakers and was appropriately closed by David Cameron’s speech on
“The need to end sexual violence against women”.
There was a discussion on “Africa – a continent of extremes”, about how
to empower women and women enterprises in the developing world. The
general consensus was by buying their goods and products and by
supporting free trade we give these women a fighting chance to support
themselves and families. One of the questions asked was how can we in the UK be confident that
the goods and products sold by these enterprises are not stained by
child labour. There were lots of interesting suggestions about how we
can safeguard the integrity of these goods.
This provoked a question that has been nagging me. In African countries which
have been torn apart by war, whole villages
have perished with the exception of a few young children. There
is no government support, no aid organization and no adult supervision
to help them. Children in this position
have to work to support themselves and their younger brothers and
sisters. Do we class children working
as a result of these tragic circumstances as child labourers, whose
products we ought to boycott?
Another example of the kind of moral dilemmas involved that I have come
across is that of a weaver with no husband, who lost the use of half her body
and is seriously disabled. Her 10 year old helps her with household
chores and weaving. Do we buy the baskets they produce or does that
constitute child labour?
Most developing countries do not have
the economic and social infrastructure to support disabled people and
families where there are no parents. People in extremely difficult
circumstances are dependent on informal and intergenerational transfers
usually from their families or neighbours. They cannot afford our kind
of social protection.
They also recognise that well-intended attempts to insist on European
or North American social protection being applied to international
trade with developing countries also fits neatly with less benevolent
agenda. This is a deliberate attempt to ensure that developing
countries cannot compete against advanced economies by making use of
their principal resource: competitively priced labour.
Over the last forty years when international trade has been liberalised
the slowest progress in removing trade barriers has been in areas such
as agricultural products and textiles. These are sectors where
developing economies have potential trade advantages.
Representatives of the world’s big trading blocs have
often spoken with forked tongues. Preaching free trade while trying to
impose the very rules of employment and social protection that would
make it difficult for developing countries to export competitively
given their levels of labour productivity.
Perhaps the best conclusion is that a one-size-fits-all approach to policy no
more works in the context of international trade that it does
nationally in the UK.