By Lipi Mehta:
This Diwali, I walked out of home and a firecracker burst near my foot. Frustrated, I sat on a ledge near my house, nursing my foot, wondering how years have passed, but nothing has changed. Every year, the post-Diwali hangover can be seen in a city’s air and on its streets – in the smog and dust, in children trying to salvage half-burst crackers, and in the paper, cardboard and plastic that once used to be crackers, choking the streets. As I tried to look for an auto through the smog, I thought about another thing that hasn’t changed – the cost at which these festivities take place.
Years ago, I was given that guilt-trip of a lesson in school – when I learned that some children were exploited to make firecrackers “because they have small hands”. I also clearly remember learning then that a place called ‘Sivakasi’ (a big ‘child labour hub’ for making firecrackers) exists in Tamil Nadu. And now, with some more research, I found that in such places, “Children in the age group of 5-15 work for more than 12 hours a day and earn paltry sum as wages for their back breaking work.”
This lesson of mine took place over 10 years ago, but there is NO change! It’s frustrating to walk out of home after every Diwali and see this “vision” of child labour a.k.a. slavery all over my street. And it’s not like there haven’t been any wake-up signs. Just two years ago, in 2014, a blast at a firecracker unit in Andhra killed 11 people. The Additional Superintendent of Police of the area said only one of the deceased was aged over 16.
Firecrackers, of course, aren’t probably the only products we consume in our everyday lives that have been made by child labour. The exploitation makes its way through almost every industry.
The shimmer in many of our shampoos and makeup products come from mica that is mined in large quantities in Jharkhand and Bihar. Terre Des Hommes, an organisation that works against child exploitation, found that an estimated 20,000 children work in these mines, in often un-monitored conditions. They also face risks of collapse and lung diseases. And according to a report by campaign group DanWatch, the finished products are then even exported to huge brands such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder. The problem is so severe and current that since June 2016, seven children have been killed in such mines, as per a Reuters investigation.
As per this write-up, children as young as 10 in Delhi work in textile factories, in “conditions close to slavery” to produce clothes for international brands such as Gap. In fact, The Observer discovered that the serial numbers on clothes made by children in filthy sweatshops in the city corresponded with Gap’s own inventory. As a child who was “lucky enough” to get sweatshirts from Gap, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to digest this.
When the iPhone 7 launched in India, I remember seeing a HUGE line in a mall in Saket, Delhi – of people waiting to buy it. Amidst such excitement across the world, Amnesty International called out Apple in just one Tweet: “Congrats on the new #iPhone7 @tim_cook — but does it contain cobalt mined by children in #DRC?” Amnesty published a report earlier this year about how children mine cobalt in Congo, the main material that goes into making batteries for Apple products. Amnesty contacted 16 multinationals, including Samsung and Tesla. There were a mixed bag of responses, however, none of them provided enough details to independently verify where their cobalt came from.
A BBC story reveals that children work full time in some tea estates in Assam, in poor health conditions. Some have been employed since they were in their early teens. The story adds that “children come in so weak from malnutrition they struggle to recover from curable illnesses, and then quickly relapse after they are released from hospital.”
It’s no secret that for our guilty pleasures and the company’s profits, children skip school and their childhoods to work on cocoa farms, where they experience gruelling routines and physical abuse. Many children are trafficked from various parts of Africa for this very purpose. However, we the consumers, enjoy the fruits of their labour, while they suffer in silence. So, the next time you bite into that KitKat, stop for a second, and ask yourself if it’s really worth it.
This Harvard study mentions that over 3,200 cases across nine Indian states have come up, of bonded labour, human trafficking and child labour being used to make carpets. These carpets are then exported to some of the world’s biggest retail chains.
Aligarh’s thriving lock industry is also a huge employer of child labour. As per a study, about 10,000 to 40,000 children are working in this industry, engaged in professions such as polishing and buffing machines, assembling, spray painting, etc. Some children are as young as 5 to 6 years.
Honestly, as a consumer, I am thoroughly disturbed that I haven’t asked enough questions about the products I’ve been buying all these years. I can spend half an hour on a food app, on what to order for dinner, but I don’t spend more than a minute checking if the everyday products I consume are products of child slavery. Maybe you’ve done this, too. Well, it’s not okay that thousands of children spend the most important years of their lives in back-breaking labour while we help companies profit over this exploitation. We have the power to do a few checks and ethically boycott products that are made by children. As a consumer, the power is in your hands – to call out companies that exploit children via social media, choose brands that are progressive (or at least making inroads in this direction) and demand accountability from business leaders. Only if we demand better, will they (the companies) give us better.
The onus is on us too, right?