Do Delhi’s child workers and Dubai’s labourers need these crocodile tears?

5 Nov

Natteri Adigal, 05 November 2007, Monday

The instigators, who nudge the construction labourers of Dubai to go on strike and the self-styled good Samaritans hyping their rescue operations to free child labourers in Indian cities are in fact the worst enemies of their supposed beneficiaries.

SAN FRANCISCO-BASED retailer Gap, more than 200 of whose 2000 suppliers of garments are from India, has given them a big Diwali bonus. But it is a cruel one.

Acting on an expose in the British newspaper, The Observer, about conditions in the tiny factories of its sub-vendors, Gap has decided to recall goods sourced from a Delhi-based supplier. The hand-stitched blouses intended for sale in GapKids stores across the United States and Europe, were allegedly produced by child labour. “As soon as we were alerted to this situation, we stopped the work order and prevented the product from being sold in stores,” said Marka Hansen, president of Gap, North America.

A couple of weeks previously, Gap had pulled up another Indian supplier, Texport Overseas, based at Bangalore, after reports of the death of a woman worker on duty. Later, it was clarified that she had a brain tumour. With loud controversies in global media about its Indian vendors doing damage to its brand, the MNC is expected to rethink on doing business with India. It has already launched an investigation as to how work was being “parceled out to unauthorized sub-vendors.”

The British newspaper had printed pictures of youngsters making clothes for other children like themselves and revealed that they were employed in a “derelict industrial unit” with an overflowing toilet. It said such sweatshops were common in India and questioned the ethics of Gap. Obviously it was with the help of romantic homegrown social workers that the story was filed. Crusaders from the affluent West, who think it is “the white man’s burden” to protect the interests of poor Asians, have been often been joined by our own crusaders. But, do the impoverished children need their crocodile tears?

Activists and police, following the report, raided the “sweatshops” in Delhi, which were in full swing to execute heavy Christmas/New Year orders. They found 14 boys, aged up to as low as 10 years, embroidering sequins on saris. A majority of them were from the impoverished State of Bihar. In further raids, police caught another 77 child workers. “We are taking down their addresses, so that they can be sent to their parents,” a police official said after a swoop.

After the rescue, what? That is too uncomfortable a question for romantic activists who “rescue” such children. For, the children are set free to go home to Bihar only to starve along with their family!

Laws are on paper in India prohibiting children under 14 from working in “hazardous” professions, covering 13 occupations and 57 processes. Garment, mining, hospitality and domestic sectors are in the list. However, these laws only help several thousand government inspectors to collect their pay and perks from the exchequer and the inevitable routine bribe from employers. It is open knowledge that Indian labour force includes between 75 and 90 million children. That is the inevitable result of stark reality of poverty in rural India, even as the media and political leaders go bonkers over India having more billionaires than China!

According to official figures, 12 million pre-teens work as domestic helps, in roadside eateries and in factories. According to anti-child labour activists, the figure is more than 60 million. The textile and garment industry itself employs about 44 million people. A high-profile good Samaritan of the Save the Childhood Foundation, Bhuwan Ribhu, basking in the glare of TV cameras, said that a few dozen children had already been “rescued” and claimed that his organisation works to rehabilitate child workers.

Activists and the media have a habit of going to town quite regularly to create a scare about the “appalling conditions” that the labourers work in. Apart from triggering shock and chest beating at the horror, all that these campaigns create is a scare that puts a temporary brake in the output of these factories. Yes, they also hike the bribe amount payable to inspectors!

In a separate development, the media in the West has gone to town about the “dark side of Dubai’s economic boom exacting harsh human toll.” Our own “conscientious” intellectuals and organisations have joined it. Any number of reports have been published that migrant labourers in the UAE live in squalid labour camps, work under poor safety standards and do forced overtime to eke out a living. The labourers are supposedly finding it all but impossible to send money home. A culmination of the campaign occurred at the Sonapur labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai this weekend.

Instigated by the good Samaritans, labourers in Jabel Ali project in Dubai resorted to what they are used to at home: demonstrate noisily. “We are on strike … We want better salaries,” said one Indian laborer as he stood at the gate of Sonapur labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai. He was part of a group of over 4000 labourers, who were detained for staging protest at Jebel Ali. A senior Labour Ministry official in Abu Dhabi had warned that all violent protestors would be booked and deported. The workers were so frustrated over pay and poor living conditions that they did not pay much heed.

Of course, it is not a pleasant experience to be a construction worker in the Gulf. Workers have to toil for long hours under the blazing sun in the desert emirate. Temperatures exceed 45 degree Celcius in the summers, and humidity is stifling for most of the year. Big crowds of laborers have to wait for long hours after work at the sites to get their turn to board buses that take them to far away camps. The distant accommodation is engulfed in dust and they get only a few hours of sleep before queuing up again for shuttling back to work.

But, has anybody stopped to ponder over the condition that construction workers back home live in? How much do they get, even during the current boom condition? It is common sight to see several families huddling together inside big concrete pipes by the roadsides. They have to cook their food in the open and cannot have a full meal more than once daily. Most of them even do not have this type of “roof” over their head.

Some 1.5 million Indians live in the UAE, more than half of them in Dubai. Abu Dhabi accounts for 300,000 and the rest live in the other five emirates. Most of them do manual labour in the booming construction industry. Quite a lot of them had entered the country illegally because of the penury and lack of opportunities back home. In June, the UAE government had announced an amnesty scheme for all foreign workers. They could either regularise their status or could leave the country without serving a jail term, according to the law, or paying penalty. The government even offered a free one-way ticket. Except for workers, who had been there long enough to remit substantial money back home, not many availed it.

Political elements among these veterans have been inciting the labourers that UAE has been prospering only by underpaying them. Illiterates, hailing mostly from Rajasthan, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, were encouraged by these “good Samaritans” to go on strike to bring work projects that includes world’s tallest building to a grinding halt.

After the protest and the indignation raised by the international media, the construction company has posted a notice at the entrance of Sonapur camp – a three-storey concrete structure rented by it. The company promises that two doctors will start visiting the accommodation regularly. It has also undertaken to pay for the cost of air conditioning and cooking gas. “There is no mention of hike in salaries,” fumes an Indian worker. “We only want Dh 900 for unskilled workers and Dh 1200 from Dh 500 and Dh 700.” In neighboring building housing workers from another company, 24-year-old Bangladeshi laborer Mahmud Jaui complains that his Dh 500 monthly wage is barely enough to live on. He says, “Company does not provide us with food or water. We drink tap water.”

Dubai Police chief, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim finds the charges amusing. He wants to know if these labourers had ever entered an air-conditioned space back home, where womenfolk trek several miles daily to fill their pots from open water bodies. He is keen to throw out the 4000 protestors out of the country.

Talmiz Ahmed, Indian ambassador to UAE, has managed to defuse the situation. Khaleej Times quoted him, “The matter is being resolved amicably.” He clarified that only those workers against whom the police had firm evidence of having indulged in violence and causing damage to public and private properties would be prosecuted by the authorities. Other Indian workers would have the option to either stay on in Dubai and continue to work for the local contracting company, or else leave their job voluntarily and return to India.

According to the ambassador’s formula, labourers not desiring to quit have to furnish an affidavit and swear that they will not indulge in any such illegal activities and will fulfill all their contractual obligations. However, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim is categorical, “We have firm evidence against those workers who indulged in violence and they will all have to face legal action.” The police reportedly had filmed some of the workers inciting violence, and those workers would be deported even if they gave an affidavit.

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has urged the authorities to ensure that the right of protest of the workers be acknowledged. Deporting the workers trying to protect their rights by themselves is unacceptable, it said. But such statements are only for the consumption of desk-bound officials at meetings. While one Dubai official said 4000 strikers would be deported, another denied any move to a mass deportation.

Politicians back in India have started looking for obtaining mileage out of the plight of the Dubai labourers, caught between the devil and deep sea. Chandrababu Naidu, reputed to have made a Cyberabad out of Hyderabad, proved that basically he is a politician. He criticised the UPA Government that it has no humanitarian outlook and has been behaving irresponsibly in respect of rescuing the Gulf returnees, victims and their families. Naidu wants a special package for the returnees. As for the victims of Andhites, who committed suicide after falling prey to the allurements of Gulf agents, Naidu wants Rs 3 lakh to be paid ex-gratia to the next of kin, government employment to their children and allotment of ‘pucca’ houses! Interestingly, several MPs of his Party are facing charges of involvement in human trafficking!

Let us face it. Why are the labourers so keen to go to the desert, knowing fully well the conditions there? Is it not because they have no opportunities back home even to get basic necessities of life? Can “humanitarian outlook” alone ensure that the children of these unfortunate labourers be fed and educated and not made to land up as child labourers in sweatshops? The only alternative to prevent the tragedy is to dump all sorts of ideologies that come in the way of job creation. Till then, people will pay lakh of rupees to agents, MLAs and MPs to get them smuggled out of the country.

Let us face it yet again. It is indeed appalling to visualise the nimble fingers of a 10-year-old handling needles for hours together. But, does it make sense to see him/her digging on garbage heaps for food or begging on the streets? In all probability, soon after being sent back to their parents in Bihar, the lads will end up in another sweatshop, perhaps for a lesser wage because they will have to learn the work all over again.

Dignitaries like Kailash Satyarthi and Bhuwan Ribhu, who derive immense satisfaction after their rescue operations under media glare, may answer that it would be better to die than having to subsist on labour as a child! The question is, are they doing any good to their supposed beneficiaries.


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