Fashionable nonsense to whitewash child labour

When it comes to poor taste and judgment, it's difficult to imagine the Nobel Peace Prize search committee getting any worse. We have seen how the 2009 winner went on to unleash a murderous blitzkrieg of drone attacks, extra-judicial killings and war mongering. Well, they just did. Among the organizations shortlisted for this year's Nobel peace prize is a Bangalore-based NGO called Concern for Working Children (CWC) that believes "child labour is a part of the solution, not the problem".

What does CWC think of child labour? One of their funding NGOs say that central to CWC's programme is a belief that "children have the ability to decide what is good for them". Peel away the top layers of rhetoric and NGO-speak, one will find rather disturbing ideas and proposals. They are rather proud that they have set up the world's first children's labor union. Nandana Reddy, the founder and Director of Development at CWC, said in an interview with the Free Speech Radio Network on the eve of the International Workers day,

Children should have choices. Children should not do work that is intolerable, that is harmful, that is hazardous. But children should have avenues where work and learning can go together at least until poverty is eradicated.** If I cant eat, I need to work**. There are many many children who work to go to school. Work has to be perceived in the right context.

If you don't see in her words an outright call to eradicate child labor, you are not alone. No, CWC does not believe in that. Look at one of the policy briefs that they had prepared in response to The Karnataka State Government's State Child Labor Action Plan 2010

A policy that refuses to acknowledge the role of work in a person’s life and ignores the fact that many children (above 14 years) need to work and are working and will work, is suffering from the ostrich syndrome. Preparing children for the world of work should be an essential element in the Action Plan and not a sentence in passing.

On paper, CWC claims that one of its strategic objectives is to "solve child labour problem and be able to declare areas 'child labour free'". On their website, they repeat the same platitudes of avoiding exploitation of children. However, in a recent interview to Times of India, the CWC founder says

Reddy admits that it is often difficult to explain CWC's position on child labour to those unfamiliar with its work. She first asks people to make a distinction between 'work' and 'labour' . "Work is enabling, it is a good ethic. It develops confidence and self-esteem. It is a healthy contributor to development. Labour is what you do for a living , an economic activity. In themselves , neither is bad, even in the context of children. It is when blanket decisions are made, nuances are lost, and we fail to protect children or create environments that are conducive for them to work in that labour becomes all bad,'' says Reddy.

What do they recommend as a policy alternative? Not much, except talk of "bringing the right to children’s participation and self-determination into focus". Free and compulsory education, stricter enforcement of labour laws are all frowned up on as too compulsive and counterproductive. In their policy briefings, CWC experts put forward a rather peculiar and perverse form of a rights-based approach. It is as if on the issue of labour, poor and disadvantaged children have a right and ability to determine what's good for them. They frame the question of child labour against the liberal narrative of individual rights and free-will, as opposed to more critical perspectives that identify the systemic causes like predatory capitalism that force poor children and their parents into making these choices.

Unfortunately the right to participation of children is barely recognised in the letter and in practice it is largely believed that using compulsion to make children ‘participate’ in services that are provided – be it health care or education – without allowing children to determine the nature and quality of these services, is a fulfilment of children’s rights. We, adults by and large, still think that we know what is best for children and that children don’t. This is why we feel that this is a cross cutting right that enables children to fashion their present and future and shape their lives.

A century after the legendary workers struggles in the west to limit the working day to 8 hours and largely successful attempts to end the cruel exploitation of women and children as cheap labor in factories, one would have hoped there is at least a notional consensus among the policy makers to ban child labor. India has the vast majority of child laborers (around 60-70 Million according to some estimates) and is one of the few countries to not yet ratify ILO conventions on child labour. The reasons attributed are mostly "complexity of law making" and pragmatism of "letting children and families having to deal with poverty". Predictably, any questions about why children have to work if adults in their family can have the same jobs at a fair wage, are brushed aside as utopian or impractical. Instead NGOs like CWC are trying to rollback the public discourse on child labor to make it more palatable. Approaching child-labour from this "non-dogmatic" position, CWC argues, will enable children to imbibe an "honorable work ethic" and open up avenues out of poverty for poor children. After all, what is more honorable than to submit yourself as fodder for capital in these neo-liberal times. Education is reduced to a part-time engagement, in many cases recast as vocational instruction, something that can be provided at the worksite after countless hours of back-breaking labour.

The nexus between NGOs and the neo-liberal juggernaut has been well understood. As James Petras notes

There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. (..) In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide “self-help” projects, “popular education,” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.

No wonder CWC says if you can't eat, you need to work. American neo-conservative leader and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was recently in the news when he tried to argue for replacing unionized janitors in schools with poor student workers from low-income, minority communities. Why pay market-rate for adults who are unionized (not just "collectivized" in 21st century NGO parlance) when you can recruit their children at half the rate. Perhaps, Newt should take a leaf out of CWC's playbook and use their sophistry to make his case. After all, it's what goes around as Nobel Peace Prize-grade activism these days.