I have been struck by a paragraph in a book (Child Worker (Real Life Stories)) I have been looking at with the children, a picture in fact, which depicts a tiny 3yr old Indian girl sitting in a pile of stones, a wooden mallet in her hand and a look of determination on her grey dusty face.

The text that goes with it explains that she is breaking stones to collect manganese ore for the equivalent of £1.80 a week. The children sit in the sun all day doing this work, their skin itches because of contamination from the toxic dust. The long term physical effects are notable. For this little girl sitting in one position for hours at at time, she can expect to suffer bone distortion including a bent spine, cramped organs, damaged reproductive organs & pelvis inevitably having long term effects on childbirth. The sun will usually cause chronic headaches, the dust lung disease, and the manganese will cause manganism, an incurable condition which attacks the nervous system with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease – fatigue, aching, clumsiness & gradual crippling. This combined with the effects of poverty and malnutrition paints a very bleak picture for her future.

Why is she doing this? India is the biggest exporter of manganese ore, which is used to make some ceramics, pesticides, fertilisers, steel and batteries. This is where it all falls apart for me. In our household, we seem to eat batteries. We could go through many more than we do, admittedly, as there is always a huge pile of items waiting for new batteries, the majority of which are not necessities, they are luxuries, and actually often rubbish. I just cannot tally in my mind the use of several batteries in some noisy irritating toy of my 3yr old, bought by some well meaning friend’s parent for his last birthday, now knowing what a child of the same age has to do to produce the raw materials for this disposable commodity.

But what can I do about it? Don’t replace the batteries is the obvious answer, but actually I can’t see that that will solve anything. Even if a mass boycott of batteries containing Indian manganese ore were to occur, this presumably would just produce more poverty in these desperate communities. Child labour itself is a very tricky issue. Whilst there is no question in my mind that young children like these should not be working in these conditions, the line is not clear cut in the cultures in which they live. The more affluent in their societies are just used to it and think nothing of it, like wallpaper, and the less well off cannot afford to eat unless all hands are on deck within a family. In the past however, children would help with looking after other children, grazing cattle, collecting firewood or some light agricultural work. These days younger and younger children seem to be doing heavier industrial work in the mining, cotton and silk type industries, and working very late shifts in retail and the hotel trade. One report claims that of the 246 million child labourers in the world, 50% are in India. Auntie Oscar’s blog provides a little more insight.
The scant few reports that I have been able to find indicate that the Indian government legislated against this kind of labour some twenty years ago, and has been making efforts ever since to aid these children out of hard labour and into education, but it would seem has met with very limited success, and lets face it, this is a huge issue for a country to deal with on its own. I feel that we in the West who are consuming the products of these labours must also have a part to play.

One tack is clearly the political one. Boycotts, legislation, aid. Raising awareness, writing to MPs. The other tack though is the business one and it seems to me that this would be as powerful and probably far more so than the political one. Who is importing from these mines? I haven’t been able to find out and would love to know. I would like to put pressure on these companies to budget into their annual expenses some money to plough back into the communities they are working with, to enable the younger children at least the opportunity to go to school, to raise the salaries of the older members of the families to make this possible. For this little girl in the picture, her parents would need to earn a mere £1.80 a week more for them to be able to afford for her not to work – how hard can that be to accomplish?

Interestingly this week there have been reports in the Indian press of a project by some children who escaped from these labours and have been in schooling. Fifteen of them have been on a 4000km cycling trip to take photos and make a short film about the everyday horrors of their peers. They have aired this at their own school and are hoping that it will be aired in schools nationwide. I would really like it to be available outside the country too so as to inspire those of us with financial influence (by that I mean any Western consumer as well as Western business) to act.

Q: – Do you have any experience in this culture – I would love your views!

– What would be an effective first action for us to take to motivate Western business, politics and/or consumers to tackle this issue?