Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 17

Had I not been to the temple in Chidambaram, and had not done my little mental dance with Shiva, I might have elevated my disgust of the child labor I witnessed to the level of conviction, citing it as another example of how backward India is. But I was newly aware that the world is far more complicated than I had imagined, and that we enlightened Westerners do not have the exclusive franchise to ALL THAT IS RIGHT.
I pumped our Rotarian guide for information.

"It is not lawful to employ children in India," he said. "The factory manager knows this. If the government inspectors come, they will shut him down. But you see, the village you have just visited, it is all a factory, and all around here are villages just like this one."

The odds of being inspected were slim and worth the gamble, he said. Some of the factories were family operations, in which parents and children all work together. But in most cases, parents essentially sell their children into servitude. They receive a lump sum from the factory manager in exchange for "apprenticeship" of the children, who do not attend school and work eight hours a day, six days a week. Some receive clothing and food, but for others, knowledge of the trade is the only compensation.

I asked our guide how people could tolerate such exploitation. He patiently explained that this was not how the arrangement was viewed in India.
"The factory manager is being a very good man. He is having much respect and is giving to the parents money, and to the child he is giving a trade. With no factories, the life of the people would be terrible, terrible."
The cottage industries would not exist at all if managers were compelled to pay workers the wages and benefits mandated by the government, he said. There would be no textile industry around Salem, and 100,000 people would face starvation. "You see, the people here are having much happiness."

This was difficult to absorb: children deprived of their childhood, forced into factory labor, doomed to illiteracy – and these were the lucky ones. These were the kids who would not starve, who would know a trade, who would get jobs in the big textile mills, who might earn enough money so that their own children might attend school. It was what they hoped, anyway, and hope was in no short supply in the village I visited.

It is easy for us, the pampered and overfed, to condemn the Third World for its exploitation of workers, to call for boycotts, to insist that these poor laborers would be much better off without their jobs. We cannot imagine a life in which survival is a daily walk on the wire, with no net to catch us if we fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw the same situation when traveling to Egypt. It was a life changing experience, which I would never have experienced or appreciated had I not seen it first-hand.

It makes reading the gripes/complaints (you receive) about the TV guide... painful that so many people are still so ignorant about REAL PROBLEMS in the world!

Have a blessed day-

Suisun City, CA