The View From Here – Retailers should always be accountable if child labour is used in their products

by Tom Henihan

There is such vigilance about the contents of food items; calories, fat, salt and sugar to the point that companies are obliged to provide that information.

With clothing, a judicious effort goes into finding things that are affordable and fashionable, especially where kids are concerned. The same goes for the most up-to-date and affordable electronic gadgets.

However, it is unfortunate that our vigilance seems to stop at our own self-interest. An estimated 34 billion dollars worth of merchandise came into Canada last year that is possibly the product of child labour.

Of that 34 billion dollars in goods, it is not organized crime or fly-by-night enterprises that are responsible but an estimated 1,200 mainstream, high profile businesses, involved in clothing, electronics, grocery stores etc.
Many of these businesses are Canadian while others are internationally established.

When confronted on the question of child labour these businesses usually plead ignorance, which is hard to countenance considering that they know everything else concerning market trends, market share, their target demographic, overhead and the bottom line.

When these grocery, clothing chains and electronic stores say they are unaware of child labour being used in the manufacture and processing of their products they are either lying or willfully ignorant.

If the price of a product were too high, they examine the matter thoroughly. However, if the price is especially favourable it is prudent not to enquire as to why, even if that region it comes from has a reputation for using child labour.

In North America, Europe and other developed regions we can have a paternalistic ethical and moral perspective that arises from a prosperous and relatively privileged environment. This is especially true where children are concerned as children in our society are mostly exempt from any practical responsibilities and are not often obliged to make any useful contribution to the maintenance of the household.

But when an organization such as World Vision talks about child labour they are not referring to children helping their parents on the farm or contributing to the running of a family business such as a store or a restaurant.

They are talking about children forced either physically or by abject circumstances into dangerous, grueling situations by unscrupulous individuals in order to produce competitively priced produce and merchandise.

There are an estimated 85 million children forced into these working conditions worldwide. That is a number over twice the population of Canada. It is difficult to fathom how an urgent matter of such proportions can be overlooked.

Any business that profits from child labour is at the very least guilty of failing to practice due diligence. As with the law, ignorance should be no defense. Profiting from goods produced with child labour ought to be not to be just damaging but devastating to a business.

The consumer has a key role to play in this serious matter and an individual’s due diligence should not stop at the right fat content and calorie count or a favourable price for a fashionable design.

With 85 million children exploited for labour, consumers should insist that all large retailers be obliged to offer a detailed chronology of the products they bring to market.

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