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Monday, January 14, 2008

This, by Monica Ali - On stopping Child Labor

Another insightful perspective from Monica Ali's Brick Lane.. pg 301 - one of the many letters from Hasina, the protagonist's villager-sister:

Lovely tell me she will start Charity for stopping the child worker. Which ones will you stop I asking to her. Oh she say all of them. The maid next door? I asking her this. She look surprise. But really she like daughter to them. The boys on roof who is now mend gutter sweep leaves? She look bit cross. That different she say. Which are the ones? The boy who come around sell butter? Lovely say are you washing that floor or not?

Here’s a good commentary on the impracticality of anti-child labor activism. I'm not sure whether most of this activism began with the loss of jobs from the West to low-wage countries of South East Asia, but if so, it is the first clue to how progressive liberals have allowed themselves to be used to impede the cause of true liberalism. Is it really the urge to remove poverty and exploitation of the children of the world, that most anti-child labor ardor springs from or is it the urge to protect one’s own labor market? How is such protectionism consistent with a liberal’s aspirations for the world around them? Especially when there is enough evidence that employment, and the resulting increase in purchasing power of developing economies can only improve their economies, and create the foundations of a marketplace for exports of our own country's goods? It amazes me how we want to force the opening up of world markets, even if it requires the near dumping of our agricultural and farm products, but will not allow the equivalent "dumping" of their labor on grounds that it is "not on level playing field" - they have no health care (like we do? ha!), they allow child labor, they allow unsafe work conditions etc. etc. While these concerns are indeed important, Western countries must understand the local context before belaboring such issues. Sometimes, a child employed is a child that is off the streets, not begging, not stealing, but being apprenticed to a trade; I am not saying that unscrupulous businessmen do not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of such children, but what I am saying is that there is such a wide scale of unfortunate events that can and do happen to children, adults, women, men in the third world, that being forced to take up a job that can feed members of one's family, is sometimes not the worst thing that can happen to a 12 year-old - call it the mirror opposite, the third world version, of your expensive $1,500 kids' practical montessori training, lemonade stand, camp, or summer internship rolled into one. Children cannot be children, I can hear you wail, and my heart does go out to them - they should be in school, yes; but if the alternative is a poorly run government school, with absent or worse still, ill-taught teachers, ill-equipped classrooms, it could well be that a factory floor that guarantees the teaching of a trade, and a stipend to boot, is not such a terrible occurrence.

Why not allow the governments of developing countries, the child laborers of the world, their family and employers to be guided by your own norms - “think globally, act locally” ??

All this makes me sometimes question whether I am indeed a progressive liberal or a mean exploitative closeted capitalist – perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Or perhaps the goals and core philosophy of the current crop of progressive liberals are not completely consistent with true liberalism.

_________________ .... _________________

As an aside, I must say I was a bit put off by the stilted language adopted by Ali for Hasina's speech/writing.
I couldn't put my finger on where the fault lay till I stumbled upon Anita Nair's website - frankly I hadn't heard of her (my deficiency entirely) until then, but was totally captivated by Anita's website, where under one of her FAQs (below) she gets exactly to the point I was having trouble with in Ali's prose for Hasina:

What makes your writing different from other Indians writing in English?

First of all, my books are set in the everyday world of India. Secondly, the characters who speak English in my book do so without making a farce out of it. To me, what a person says is more important than how they speak their words. And, this belief has found its way into all my writing. The other aspect is that in a book such as The Better Man that is set in a village, English is seldom spoken. But that does not mean that the average Keralite is illiterate or unaware of the world. He has probably read Omar Khayyam and Marx, Russell and Tolstoy in translation so that degree of education is perceived in the way he uses his words. So if some of my characters sound erudite, they are, in the language they grew up speaking. In such a context, Hybrid-English or the lack of it makes no difference to the atmosphere or plot or characterization.

Granted Hasina, who Ali forces to speak 'farcical' English is a villager and seems unlikely to have read Omar Khayyam or Marx; but even a villager such as she, a Bengali at that, who seemed to have such an expressive, original personality as shown through her letters to her sister, would speak her native Bengali fluently. The ill-phrased, ill-constructed, ungrammatical sentences made her seem to be more doltish than the spunky, tom-boy of a village-maid that her actions showed her to really be.

So here I am expressing some minor disappointment with that part of Ali's composition - but who am I to be disappointed at someone who has put together such an otherwise beautifully perceptive, almost fully believable tale of a people - something which every immigrant, whether Bengali, or Muslim, or Hindu, whether rich or poor, whether crossing into the US, or UK, or even urban Mumbai, can surely identify with!

{Crossposted at}

[UPDATE] I hasten to add that nothing I’ve said here absolves governments of developing countries who need to do their best to provide quality schooling and education (I heard that the Indian government has plans to open up a slew of high level universities across the country - I wonder whether, they first need to make sure that their elementary and high schools are fully up to snuff, and poor families have equal access to good education, and find it worth their while to send their kids to such schools instead of opting for short term gains at local factories.) But developed countries need to get off their high horse - no use pretending that labor activism of any kind is not out of the most inward looking, illiberal motives!!

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