Several years ago, I attended a forum in Washington, DC on supply chain responsibility. At the time, I was managing corporate social and environmental responsibility communications for two different clients, both with vast, global supply chains. Supplier responsibility was an area of constant focus and opportunity for these companies.
The forum was a quiet, routine affair as these things go, and polite. I saw a few participants looking a bit sleepy at the end of one session in particular – where representatives from three Fortune 500 multi-nationals spent the better part of an hour outlining the steps their companies had taken to eliminate child labor from their supply chains (the inspections and audits, on the ground partnerships, tracking and reporting).
Everything changed when, during the Q&A period, a young woman in the audience stood up and posed a question to the panelists. She worked for a small NGO with operations in India, and noted that many families there desperately rely on the income of all family members – parents, grandparents, and yes, children. She spoke briefly but compellingly, painting a picture of poverty and need that most in the room couldn’t comprehend. The panelists look puzzled, and there were murmurs of surprise and disbelief throughout the audience.
I remember being at first repelled by her comments, to being puzzled (can child labor ever be okay?), to being unsure about the whole thing. In my college sociology classes, I learned to appreciate cultural relativism. It’s important to value and respect other cultures and their norms, but in my heart, I know that some things (like kids working in factories) are just plain wrong. This woman, however, had a firsthand perspective and a better informed point of view on the issue of child labor in India than I could claim, so how could I argue with her?
I was reminded of all of this recently when I read an excellent piece by Hasnain Kazim in Spiegel Online. He writes about the football stitchers of Sialkot in Pakistan, who produce millions of hand-stitched soccer balls each year. The city has become the world leader in the manufacture of high quality soccer balls, and several companies that export them around the world bring jobs and opportunity to thousands of Sialkot’s people. Tens of thousands more benefit from this work indirectly through the stability, economic development and related employment that come with the material suppliers, subcontractors, shipping and packaging firms, and the shops, restaurants and other businesses that cater to the workers.
For years, before greater attention was paid to the issue of child labor and before global companies like Nike and Adidas began cracking down on it, children as young as 10 worked in the factories stitching balls together. In his article, Kazim quotes a stitching center manager who notes that these kids fared reasonably well there, learning a trade that guaranteed them income for life. Now, the parents of many of these children, desperate for the income that their work can bring, are sending them to toil in the local brickworks and in metalworking factories – places far more dangerous and far more damaging to little bodies than the stitching centers.
As the father of two children under 10, the true cost of child labor is becoming increasingly relatable and ever more disturbing to me. When I see pictures of children in factories or fields or behind market stalls… it’s difficult to absorb and impossible not to be moved.
The decisions we make—even the obvious and unquestionably good and right ones—have ramifications, good and bad. And the longer I work in the area of corporate responsibility, the more I see that the principles and policies that once seemed so black and white, are every shade of gray.
In a perfect and just world, 10 year olds should be playing with soccer balls… not making them. But I am constantly reminded that we don’t live in a perfect world.
Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington D.C, and writer for the Hill & Knowlton Blog, ResponsAbility.