Saturday, October 11, 2014

Is Child Labour Really a Problem?



There was a lot of introspection and self criticism yesterday with the joint awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi. “Child labour is a curse”, “robbing childhood from the children”, “slavery”, “feudal mindset” - these and a thousand other charges have been flying around. Grim stories of rescue missions were recounted by the dozen, and the State was held culpable for the crime of not taking care of its citizens. However, a large number of these arguments to my understanding are very lopsided, and typically amount to the welfare state paradigm that the economic right finds highly problematic for a host of reasons.



Please do not for a minute think that I am promoting child labour as it is understood and depicted often in popular culture as an exploitative system. Often however we tend to drag children belonging to the teenage group into this whole cycle of ‘giving their lives a fair chance’. On the contrary, a careful assessment of what is happening in today’s world needs to be weighted alongside to develop a real picture of whether child labour is an issue or not.

There are several questions being raised on the validity of university education (graduation, post graduation, even professional degrees), and criticism of the pedagogic system across all levels of society and schools of thought has varied from futility to utter failure of producing employable people. The myth of people getting jobs after getting a university degree has permeated to such depths that it will take decades to even realize the monstrous cycle that people at large are stuck in. Countries hit hardest by austerity measures in Europe - Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Iceland and Ireland - as well as those like the United Kingdom and France struggling to stay afloat, have been recording unbelievable levels of unemployment. The situation is tragic enough for journalists to have labelled these people as Europe’s lost generation. High youth unemployment rates - ranging from 21% in the UK to a whopping 55% in Greece. across these nations is contrasted starkly by the availability of jobs for which they are highly overqualified (imagine a physics graduate taking your orders at McDonalds). These 2012 numbers, provided by the European Commission’s Eurostat agency, are not indicative of another massive problem plaguing the world today - underemployment. The levels of motivation and the hope of a better life are dwindling fast amongst Europe’s youth.

Another interesting bunch of statistics come from the United States’ Bureau of Labour. The 2013 projection numbers reveal that while a bachelors’s degree from a college tends to raise income from the average weekly median of US$827 to US$1108, the jump towards a postgraduate degree is not comparable. This marginal increase in income is compounded by the high levels of debt being accrued by students in pursuance of the better life dream as pointed out in data collated by Forbes magazine’s Jesse Colombo. The financial ramifications of the student loan bubble shall be far worse than the housing bubble burst which caused the 2008 recession, one which we never really came out of. Huge student debt has meant that the emotional sense of a pointless life is creeping up rapidly across the American youth too. 

Much of this is true for China as well, with unemployment rates being noted to be as high as 20% as per this CNBC editorial. However, as the China Household Survey numbers show in this editorial, there is a big twist to the tale. As the writers of the editorial - Terence Tse and Mark Esposito note: 
“...China's economic miracle has insofar been driven by three sectors: export-driven manufacturing, construction and large energy and capital intensive heavy industries dominated by the state, none of which offer large number of white-collar jobs suitable for university graduates. 

By contrast, low-skilled workers with a primary and junior secondary education, especially young migrants from the rural China, can easily find jobs in the transportation, construction and catering industries. This is especially true in coastal provinces such as Guangdong and Fujian as well as major cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Indeed, currently these businesses are finding it tough to recruit and retain workers as demand is high and supply is low. This, in turn, has led to the continuing increase in wages.

Such numbers are turning out to be true for India as well. In 2013, a Labour Ministry survey found that with an increase in education levels in the country,the unemployment rate was also increasing across age groups. The survey noted worryingly that in rural areas,the unemployment rate for graduates and above for the age group 15-29 years was estimated to be at 36.6 per cent while in urban areas, the same was reported to be 26.5 per cent. 

Thus, such numbers raise certain critical questions that need to be discussed threadbare across all sections of the intelligentsia. Firstly, is education the guarantor of a job? Clearly, these numbers show the answer to be a resounding no. One should temper this argument with the fact that a lot of this data points to the futility of university education in its present context. However, it does raise pertinent question on whether we really need modern education as we understand it to create economic prosperity across countries.

Secondly, what needs to be observed with greater interest is the fact that skills for several kinds of jobs seem to be directly correlated to the number of years spent in a particular profession. This may be considered particularly true for artisans, furnace workers, cement mixers, crane operators etc. - mostly what are considered to be low-end jobs for university graduates, but have decent pay packages associated with them. Clearly, lack of formal education may not appear to be an issue to sustain economically. Has anyone then tried to correlate the fact that many of these workers may be school dropouts or school diploma holders at best? My own interactions have shown that a lot of these people started out quite early in their jobs due to financial constraints or emotional issues at home. It is time to take a relook at the emphasis of how schooling and education may not necessarily be the panacea needed. In fact, in many developed economies, children start working as early as twelve years to supplement their pocket money income. Ironically, that is not labeled as child labour.

Thirdly, the need for apprenticeship is underscored all over again. The Indian Apprentices Act of 1961 was a disaster till major rectifications were undertaken to skew the imbalances created. Germany, which has by far the lowest unemployment rate (9.1%) in Europe, has a robust apprenticeship system that sees more than 14 million apprentices today working across various industrial sectors, developing essential skills. In stark contrast, India with its billion plus population, has only 25,000 apprentices, pointed our earlier this year by an appalled Arun Shourie. Also, Indian Technical Institues (ITIs), which were supposed to have produced technically skilled workers, have been a big disaster, with the number of industry-employable people being produced being a far cry from. So, can child labour be struck outright as a criminal offence, a blot on society? Or should we reconvene discussions to understand what really should constitute the definition of child labour?




The age of 14 is allowed under Indian law for legally working in a job. Would that constitute child labour as well in the eyes of the welfare state? Most likely. People singing the refrain of not giving a chance of people to ‘be like us’ is just another way of saying that what these people are doing is beneath their dignity. This proves the fallacy of the argument of equality as propagated by welfare statists, whereby people not possessing university degrees automatically qualify to be children of a lesser god. The right to choose is certainly an essential one that all children must be provided with. But throwing the baby with the bath water, a typical harebrained act of welfare state propagators, has a huge socio-economic cost associated with it. Child labour if forced is certainly an appalling crime. Also it is nobody’s arugment that children should be indulging in jobs that are dangerous and put grave risks on their health the longevity. And no, this is not an ugly romanticization of Oliver Twist in any which way. But perhaps all child labour need not be seen with the same lens. Renegotiating what child labour really means is an idea whose time is now long overdue in the world. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Musings on Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and Implications for Greater China

Protests Inspire Creativity, and Ever More So in Hong Kong (courtesy BBC)
The recent upheaval with the Occupy Central movement, becoming more popular internationally by the name Umbrella Movement, has taken nearly everyone by surprise. This has happened because the silent majority decidedto stand up for what it believes in, sacrificing nearly everything that provided semblance to their lives in a mad, chaotic city state like Hong Kong (HK). Life is hard in Hong Kong, so the people standing up for greater democratic rights becomes even more appreciable in my personal opinion. There are a few trends that can be seen on the surface emerging from this movement so far, and a lot of them, far from being very pessimistic (as some Facebook posts being shared by HK-ers) are encouraging.

The people of Hong Kong have been exemplary in the discipline and peaceful nature that has been maintained so far during these protests. It is Gandhian in nature, thus making many neutral observers like me smile warmly. This is good, as we have often seen such protests, moving eastwards from the Gulf nations of West Asia and Northern Africa, boil down to violent clashes and brutal crackdowns. To this end, even the federal government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) should be commended from refraining to use the Army or any other paramilitary forces - instead it is CY Leung's city government that has egg on its face in the pepper spray fiasco.

All this is happening amongst a series of protests across Greater China region, where there have been protests against Big Brotherly treatment on issues as wide and varying from trade (Taiwan) to political reform (Hong Kong). While President Xi Jinping's government had to inherit much of these headaches, it is in his best interests - political and economic - to hammer these issues out rapidly. To use a corporation analogy for the government of PRC, there is an urgent need to assuage disgruntled shareholders before your capital stock takes a thrashing on the corporate governance issues on the stock market. The important shareholders exiting from your options altogether always spells bad news.

Another interesting development, despite all efforts to block coverage across the Mainland, is the interest of people in the unfolding of events in HK. People will not turn out on the streets in large numbers for demanding greater democratic rights, but a significant number of people (forming a critical mass of thought) are certainly inclined towards HK-ers. Many of them perceive the demands to be legitimate. That does not mean that Mainlanders want democracy right now - however, it does hint towards the rising expectations of political reforms within the next generation, and needs attention.

The interpretations of Basic Law in my opinion can still be read to make everyone happy. However, that is only possible if a window for reconciliation continues to remain open. People in HK are willing to show that they will walk the extra mile if given a chance. It is now for the PRC federal government to be gracious and walk the extra mile. Crossing the bridge has become essential and it should not be afraid to do so.

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