Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Low wage craft labourer would have to put up until economic growth

I grew up amidst a ravaging war in Kabul that was gripping the city in the 90s. Playing outside was rarely an option, even then it carried risks. Death or injury of my friends, who were too like me in their early teens, was common and each was a lesson to learn from. Just like many children of my age I adapted to the underground or the general indoor life. At the same time just like many other children of my age I carried the burden of seeking sources that provided the provision of sustenance. This is the time when many children of my age learned several handcraft skills. We had spent around ten hours a day working on a piece of embroidery, carpentry, packaging soap or weaving a carpet. The amount of money a child could make was under 50p. All the crafts were particularly harmful to health, inhaling the dust, debris or chemical is now causing problem among those children that are now in their early 30s. Most are suffering from anomaly associated with sight too. Not to mention of the psychological footprint left from mixing childhood with adult responsibility and imminent death.

I have moved a long way from the misfortunes that had befallen my childhood and now own my business in the UK. When I was in my 20s and had just transitioned from the smothering poverty of my childhood, I took an issue with the marketing trend of handcrafts and the exhibitionist place it had in the western culture. I only saw the prospect of a child confined to a dark room, not the embellishment of the hand weaved carpet or embroidery. I have recently overcome my ethical protest but maintain my objection to the profit distribution mechanism of handcraft. Millions of children will continue to produce handcrafts and labour extensive camps will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Craft children are working long hours in horrible conditions for low pay only because the alternative ways of making a living is none existent or worst.

When you take away an iconic handcraft labour from a woman or child the obvious risk is that they lose whatever financial power they have. This is surely not the aim. The only alternative is economic growth: while it may be frustratingly slow, it finishes off “Afghan Handcraft” by producing far more attractive jobs.

While the economic logic is straightforward enough, it is not watertight. I believe that economic development is not alleviating this particular problem. Economic growth itself can increase the demand for child labour as well as reducing the supply. While luxury customers are willing to pay a dime more for handmade carpet, increasing the chances of handcraft labourer income. Research shows that this income generally adds to the profit of trader and marketer and hardly trickles to the child force. Economic growth – at least in the short-term – is not enough to reduce child labour. Complementary policies to strengthen schools and the incentive to attend them seem to be necessary.

Schools and education is also key in grappling with the psychological element to the persistence of “Afghan Handcraft”. Many labours perceive this work as the only to make a living. The repetitive nature of the craft provides the illusion of safety to the child. Effective education shall reinstate self-confidence and alternative skill in labour children.

It is difficult to discount the long-term effectiveness of economic growth in improving working conditions. Despite my deepest sympathy for children who work long hours waving carpets, unfortunately I see no quick solution for them.

There is a lot to learn from the experience of other developing countries to help us make informed assumptions. For instance after the US boycotted sweatshops in Indonesia profits did fall, and so did investment. Some small plants closed. But few, if any, jobs seem to have been lost. The minimum wage in Indonesia more than doubled between 1989 and 1996, after inflation, and this did depress employment. But there seemed to be no additional effect in the districts with lots of high street handcraft suppliers, despite the fact that wages in those regions outpaced wage increases elsewhere by almost a third.

Increasing the demand and creative marketing for handcraft will not only change the demand but the profit structure and result in increasing the wage of the labourer. Increased income for children will provide the opportunity to work fewer hours and increase chances of school attendance. It will also induce other family member to work, easing the burden on the labour child.