How to counter child exploitation

Posted on November 29, 2017

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Christmas is coming and the tills of the towns in South Africa are unlikely to jingle as merrily as in previous years. Understandably, because even the average banked salaries of South Africans have declined in real terms courtesy of these straitened economic times.

But the festivities will continue and many of the purchases made will, in fact, reveal a link to the ongoing job losses and and falling wages on the domestic front. Subsidised products from Europe and North America, along with the cut-price output of sweatshops in less industrially developed countries, will fill South African shopping baskets.

This at a time when farm workers, generally the poorest of the labouring poor, also face the prospect, certainly in the Western Cape, of a drought induced jobs massacre. And the agricultural sector — the most labour intensive in the economy — has again been pinpointed as a prime contributor to the problem of child labour.

During the 2012 farm worker strikes, trade unionists, with justification, pointed out that children were often forced to work in order to contribute to inadequate incomes earned by their parents. There was even a drive to demand the R12 500 monthly pay posted by mine workers.

A crude picture, inspired by simplistic analysis, depicted greedy, brutish farmers on one hand living lavishly at the expense of their workers. There may be cases where this is true, but, by and large, farming, a major contributor to employment, has been forced, with government compliance, into the race to the bottom.

At the time of the 2012 strikes, the Swedish state alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget sent out a team to investigate the treatment of workers on the farms from which they bought wine. I pointed out that they would have done better to look into their own value chain: just 5% of the sale price of the wine ends up with the farmers who, when their costs are deducted could not pass on more than 2% to the workers. The Swedish government took 64% of the price in taxes.

The same distortion occurs in all sectors as global corporates and supermarkets use their economic clout to effectively make the rich richer. The farmer/author William Dicey, in his essay South African Pastoral, last year illustrated this very clearly.

He noted that European retailers pocketed 42% of the sale price of SA fruit, distributors 32% with the farmers receiving just 18%. At the same time, subsidised imports of everything from chicken to canned tomatoes and other processed agricultural products land on supermarket shelves in South Africa at prices that local producers cannot complete with.

Dicey also points to estimates by economist Anthony Black, that government support for the local motor industry is probably “somewhere in excess of R50 000 per worker, per annum”. The figure for domestic agriculture, including the cost of land reform, is just R3 000.

These are the processes that, globally, are pushing more and more families into penury and driving more and more children to work. According to Stats SA there were 550,000 child labourers in the country in 2015, a decline of little over 200,000 from the year 2000.

But there is little to celebrate. Given current conditions, we are not defeating the scourge of child labour. And if we were, we would be leading much of the world, since the problem seems to be growing.

At fault is not legislation that aims to protect this most vulnerable sector of society. South Africa has fairly good laws covering the exploitation of children as do many other countries where millions of children, many between the ages of seven and 14, toil in sometimes horrendous conditions.

The simple truth is that poverty drives families to get their children to work or even to “bond” them as workers or servants to pay off debts. There is also the outright sale of children and more of this can be expected as more families become impoverished.

Those statistics that exist are also almost certainly under estimates. In order for families to survive it is often a case of all available hands having to help out.

Children, as young as five or six, working in “home industries” are also often not counted in official figures. Nor are those children, some not even in their teens, who head parentless households. Yet they do work, often having to scavenge to maintain themselves and siblings. Then there is the army of street children who forage for a living of sorts in the cities and towns.

What seems clear is that child labour, in whatever survivalist form it takes, from being sexually exploited to petty theft, outsourced home work and scavanging amid the detritus of urban households, cannot be defeated by tougher laws or calls for more enforcement. Tougher laws and more enforcement simple drives the problem underground.

Parents and children have to eat in order to survive and if the system does not provide the wherewithall for the adults alone to feed their families, the children must contribute or be bonded, sold hired out or left to die.

Only where an adequate social welfare net exists or where all families are guaranteed the very basic necessities of life can this widespread exploitation of children be eradicated. Surely this is where our thoughts — and actions — should be directed.