11 December 2008

Studying fair trade = heavy stuff

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and this is really going to be a buzzkill. But, as people start to shop for the holidays, this is something to keep in mind. I just had lunch with a new friend, a friend of two of my wonderful, old friends in San Francisco, and she's getting a Ph.D. in political science, focused on fair trade. It sounds great-- oh, awesome, you help farmers and craftspeople, right? Well, it isn't quite that simple, unfortunately.

She told us about her work in India and how she was immensely underwhelmed by the working conditions of so-called 'fair trade' factories. Finally, her colleagues said she wouldn't believe what conditions were really like unless she saw them with her own eyes. So, she posed as a potential buyer and was able to enter five different sweatshops owned by the mafia. I am at a total loss as to how this happened, but she was also able to photograph and talk (through a translator) with the children. She took many photos of the products and then snuck other photos in. This was no small task, as others who had tried to uncover the real working conditions had their rooms broken into-- some even ended up with broken knees.

What she saw in the sweatshops explained the secrecy and brutality: children were literally being chained to their stations, where they worked 12-16 hours per day, seven days per week. Children were breaking mirrors with their bare hands to make mosaic Christmas ornaments, mixing toxic dyes and glues with their bare hands to make other Christmas ornaments and inhaling glass and other unhealthy fumes with no protection whatsoever. She saw five sweatshops, and all of the workers were little boys. And where were the little girls? Not in school or at home, but working as sex slaves on the streets. (Sorry. I did warn you that this would be depressing.)

We were told that unless a carpet said specifically that it wasn't made by children, it probably was. And that this was probably true for most handicrafts. One would like to think that if parents and families knew how their young were being treated, they would be outraged and put an end to it. The truth is that families are making $500 a year with both parents and all of the children working--and just barely scraping by. A six-year-old girl had developed a heavy cough from working in a glass bracelet factory, and when someone gently told the father that she would likely die before she was even old enough to marry (which could be as young as fifteen), he said, 'Let her die.'

What a sad world scarcity and lack creates. I bet most parents in the US could never imagine saying that about their child.

What my friend proposes is that rather than having child labor be illegal, legalize and strictly monitor it. Apparently, there are dozens of NGOs who have the resources to help, but if they step in and clean up the broken glass and vomit in the sweatshops, they are responsible for aiding and abetting child-labor sweatshops.

So, where does this leave us, as consumers with almighty dollars to spend? We can't save every child who is suffering in a sweatshop, and if we stop buying all handicrafts, people who need the income will be out of work. Rather disheartening, isn't it? My new friend felt bad that she'd laid such heavy information on me, but it behooves us to know what causes we're supporting.

So, yes, it may be a little more expensive to buy non-child-labor products, but it does seem to be a good thing to do. Shopping at places like Ten Thousand Villages. Buying work you know was created by an adult. Buying fewer things that last longer. In short, the same old mantra: reduce, reuse, recyle. Right. I know the shopaholics are biting their nails, eyes darting from side to side, wondering, 'What will I do?' Well, the haunting images of those little fingers of children slaving away should help. Yes, it's depressing, but this kind of thing just doesn't look as beautiful as it used to...