Peter Fragiskatos Headshot

Free Trade And Free Children

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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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