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Peter Fragiskatos

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Free Trade And Free Children

Posted: 04/22/2013 5:39 pm

India, home to 1.2 billion people, is the world's fourth largest economy. By 2050, it could move into third place. The Harper government has taken notice.

Since 2010, it has been pursuing a free trade deal with India. Although a final agreement is a long way off, it will get done eventually. And that would be a very good thing.

As it stands, trade between India and Canada is low when compared to what could be the case. The most recent estimate of two-way trade, calculated in 2011, puts the figure at $5 billion. A study commissioned by the Canadian and Indian governments suggests that this would more than double to $12-15 billion if trade barriers were lifted as part of a free trade deal.

India, for its part, is anxious to feed demand in its growing economy by gaining access to Canada's natural resources, including diamonds, uranium, oil, gas, and potash (needed to make fertilizer). But the potential of free trade would extend far beyond, leading to a boost in a range of areas including construction materials, financial services, forest products, agricultural and manufactured goods, seafood, machinery, aerospace products, and environmental technology. It would also mean that cheaper Indian goods, from jewelry and garments to metals and electrical equipment, would enter the Canadian market.

There are further benefits too. Emerging economies such as India can help Canada become less reliant on trade with the United States. At present, almost 75 percent of Canadian exports go to the U.S. If the American economy fails to resurrect, the consequences for Canada are obvious (I shall spare you the joke about sneezing and catching colds). On the face of it then, looking towards India and others states -- the Harper government is also currently pursuing free trade deals with South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and the European Union, and a Trans Pacific partnership with 10 other Pacific Rim countries -- makes sense. A closer look, however, presents troubling questions.

Some, such as UNICEF, the child agency of the United Nations, have argued that India has the most child labourers in the world. Its reports document a situation in which 28 million children work in agriculture, manufacturing, mines, construction and manual labour, housekeeping, diamond-cutting and polishing, and a range of other labour-intensive areas. Many of these children are sold by their families or even kidnapped (more on them in a bit).

UNICEF's estimate is relatively conservative: some groups have argued that the number is closer to 45 million or more. Legal protections exist but these tend not to matter. Children under the age of 14, for example, are not permitted to work as housekeepers but this is regularly ignored. In part, this is because the practice is so widespread, and not only among the rich. Most middle-class families have a live-in servant and children are especially coveted because they are cheaper and more compliant.

On top of this, the practice is entrenched in Indian society because of the Hindu caste system, which places individuals into social hierarchies that are based on occupation and inherited at birth. For example, most child labourers belong to the dalit caste, the so-called "untouchables" who make up around 16 percent of the population and sit at the bottom of the caste order. Despite a ban on the practice -- and although many dalits have used education to move up the social ladder -- it is they who work the most difficult menial jobs and are often segregated from shops, schools, and villages as a result. For many higher caste Indians, dalits are so impure that they cannot even be touched.

The Harper government cannot do much to change any of this but it can and should do something, especially since polling data confirms what one would expect: most Canadians are opposed to child labour. The difficulty lies in determining exactly how to proceed.

Insisting that India take serious steps to put a child labour ban in place in order for a free trade agreement to be concluded is not something the Conservatives are likely to do. No matter, because this would only make the problem worse.

Making child labour illegal fails to recognize that poverty is what drives the practice and that banning it is equivalent to sweeping the problem under the rug. What is more, because many families need their children to work in order to sustain themselves, forcing an end to the practice will only make them worse off.

Instead, the trafficking of children should be the focus. Hundreds of thousands of children have been sold or kidnapped and work as virtual slaves in India. If a free trade agreement is reached, it is almost certain that goods produced by them will enter the Canadian market (products made by trafficked children already circulate widely in the West). Recent efforts to put in place strong penalties for those found guilty of organizing and carrying out the practice -- between seven years and life in prison -- are facing strong resistance.

Pushing India to reverse course and insisting that, as part of any free trade deal, no goods made by trafficked children will be allowed to enter Canada is therefore vital. Doing so would not only recognize that this is the only real child labour issue that Canada might be able to influence Indian negotiators to take action on. It is also the right thing to do.

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  • In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, Indian coal miner, Surya Limu, waits to enter a small opening on the face of a 50 meter deep shaft where he and others like him scrape a living in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, Indian coal miner, Surya Limu, keeps warm by a fire before entering a small opening on the face of a 50 meter deep shaft where he and other miners work in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, Indian coal miner, Surya Limu (inside hole), squats with other miners by a fire to keep warm hours before dawn, inside the face of a 50 meter deep shaft in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, Indian coal miner, Surya Limu, waits to go down a 50 meter deep shaft where he and other miners work in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 31, 2013, a young worker places a basket filled with coal on his head at a road side coal depot in Mulang village in the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 30, 2013, a child takes care of her sibling as she stands near a hut her parents call home near coal mine shafts in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 30, 2013, a teenager shovels coal into baskets at a road side coal depot in the East Jaintia Hills district of the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 30, 2013, Indian children carry coal in baskets towards a coal crushing machine at a road side coal depot in the East Jaintia Hills district of the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 30, 2013, Indian children carry coal in baskets at a road side coal depot in the East Jaintia Hills district of the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 31, 2013, a young worker carries a stack of baskets used to load coal into trucks at a road side coal depot in Mulang village in the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 30, 2013, an Indian teenager mans a coal crushing machine at a road side coal depot in the East Jaintia Hills district of the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 31, 2013, a young worker takes a break from shovelling coal into baskets that other young workers will load onto trucks at a road side coal depot in Mulang village in the Indian northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, Indian coal miner, Surya Limu, stands in a pine forest near the coal mine where he and others like him work in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

 

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