Business and Child Labor: A Response to Vijay Govindarajan

This post is in response to the recent blog post on HBR.org, titled ‘Business Can Help End Child Labor’.

The above article’s author, Prof. Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, sent me an email earlier this week with an invitation to read the post. In the article, VG – ranked among the world’s leading management thinkers – argues that the persistence of such slavery in our time is a business issue, in addition to the myriad other questions it confronts us with. The motivation trigger for the article appears to be his meeting with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent decades battling slavery, and especially child slavery, in India. (Satyarthi maintains that slavery is an economic issue, besides being a human rights issue, as it perpetuates illiteracy and poverty).

Child Labor

So what’s VG’s proposal?

‘Corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children’, and thus effectively supplement government regulations and NGO efforts, VG suggests.

While I laud the principle behind the proposal, it likely has only limited potential for far-reaching change at the pace this still-gargantuan ethical wound requires. (VG’s example of the big cigarette industry players, who have agreed to abide by international child labour laws, has the symptoms of a case of redirected guilt management – especially seeing some of the caveats they have placed around their move – and so gets only very grudging respect from me).

Here are the key reasons for scepticism about meaningfully rapid change in this area.

– The massive employment of children in India’s unorganised sector – a problem that extends to other countries in the region as well, albeit on a smaller scale. According to the last Census of India, there are still tens of millions of children working in grindingly difficult conditions across the country.

– A far more intractable problem: the widely unacknowledged compartmentalisation of empathy in Indian society along religious/caste/class/linguistic – even racial – lines. In my experience of Indian society, this deficit in the ability to put oneself in different ethnocultural shoes (on which the likes of Stephen Quintana in multicultural North America have shone a light), is frustratingly obdurate even in the face of what one might think are compelling local religious and/or cultural principles. Commonly, the children employed by families for domestic work, and by farms and small businesses, belong to different caste/religious/linguistic/racial groups than the employers, and attempts to elicit empathy with a view to their emancipation run up against a wall of indifference and even contempt. (For example, underage domestic or farm workers in North-West India are often ‘renamed’ using generic labels such as ‘Bahadur’ for ethnic Nepalese, ‘Bhaiyya’/’Ramu’ for Biharis, etc. – thereby slotting them into semi-derogatory categories and diminishing their status as individuals worthy of full empathy). Without the propulsive force of empathy, there is little impetus to act.

When I think of the failure of much-hyped moral principles rooted in a society’s culture to wrestle down problems whose existence on such massive scale should be unconscionable, I am reminded of a dazzlingly insightful passage from Susan Sontag’s At The Same Time:

“The perennial destiny of principles:  while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.”

Postscript:

The estimated 250-million-strong urban, educated middle class is the segment of the population in India which one would expect to be the most receptive to one part of VG’s suggestion that ‘corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children.’

However, a recent article in the New York Times gave me pause for thought.

In the piece, Steven Quartz and Anette Asp posit that the increasing ‘diversity of status-seeking’ activity in the 21st century consumer culture in the United States makes income inequality ‘less emotionally salient’ for many Americans, setting recent generations quite apart from their early 20th century Gilded Age predecessors.

But why would one expect this attenuation of ‘emotional salience’ to be restricted to just the existence and growth of income inequality in a society? It could well extend to areas such as labour exploitation. This NYT article appears all of a piece with the narrowing of ‘mental bandwidth’ identified by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and appears to be afflicting not just the poor, with their multiplying worries hogging mental space, but also middle class millennials in the US (at least).

With consumer culture in largely-young middle class India mirroring American consumer culture, it is difficult to be very sanguine about the active involvement of this large and key but constantly distracted swathe of the Indian population in battling child labour. At least not in the visible time-horizon. The need for greater, effective government intervention remains important.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

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