Finals time! But it’s child labour that deserves a kick
In their biggest week of the year, the AFL and NRL have had to respond to reports that they are using footballs stitched by Indian child labourers who are paid mere cents for the work.
Child labour is a serious evil and needs to be combated everywhere. Not only are child labourers exploited economically, but their health and safety is often endangered, and they are deprived of the chance to get an education.
I would expect the football codes and clubs to take this issue seriously and I am pleased they have done just that. The AFL, and North Melbourne in particular, pride themselves on social responsibility. So it must have come as a shock for North when The Age reported that commemorative balls to be given away at their Grand Final Breakfast had been made with child labour. The club has acted quickly and decisively, redirecting payments for these footballs to World Vision, their charity partner.
But the truth is that sport is just the tip of the iceberg.
Child labour, and other forms of exploitation – including modern forms of slavery – are part of the reality of the global economy. It is a long-term, systemic issue, and it needs long-term, systemic remedies. Bans and boycotts are all very well but they don’t necessarily address the root causes of the problem.
As consumers, we are all too often partners in exploitation. Often this is unknowing and unwilling. But the excuse of not knowing is no longer good enough.
For example, we love our mobile phones, iPads and all the other devices that have transformed our way of communicating. But we conveniently overlook that all these gadgets use the mineral coltan, much of it mined in appalling conditions in the Congo.
And we also love chocolate. Can you imagine Easter without the eggs? But while huge progress has been made, much of the world’s chocolate production still involves trafficked and child labour recruited for work in the cocoa farms of West Africa.
Sports equipment, mobile phones, chocolate, cheap clothing, cheap overseas holidays – the list goes on. The answer is not to throw our hands up and say nothing can be done. Nor is it to retreat from the global economy – these products and services are a big part of lifting people up from poverty.
We have to acknowledge when ethical lines have been crossed. Sometimes, if a thing is cheap, it’s cheap for a reason, and that reason might be troubling exploitation and abuse.
However things are changing. Public awareness continues to grow. More and more people realise that the advantage we gain as global consumers comes with an ethical demand to also behave as global citizens.
This does demand of us that we be ethical consumers and also ethical investors. The Fairtrade movement has done a power of good in waking us up to the fact that as consumers we have the opportunity to make real difference by the choices we make.
But we also need to think about the reasons child labour happens in the first place. We need to recognise the plight of families who put children to work instead of sending them to school. If we really care about the rights and wellbeing of children, we have to go beyond legal rules and focus also on the context of poverty that gives rise to child labour.
I have met thousands of parents in poor developing countries, and overwhelmingly they want the best for their children, just like Australian parents. But for millions of people their choices are limited by the systemic denial of opportunity that comes from extreme poverty and injustice.
If the reporting about child labour in India helps end some of the worst forms of child labour, that will be a great achievement. But it mustn’t stop there.
I am proud that so many Australians show solidarity with poor communities by supporting agencies like World Vision. I am proud that our government demonstrates commitment to our neighbours through an effective aid program focused on reducing poverty. I am proud that so many young Australians choose to volunteer and to advocate in the cause of a more just world.
Australians love sport and for millions of us Grand Final Week is a time of genuine joy and celebration, even for those of us whose team ended their season weeks ago.
This is a time when we celebrate the energy and exuberance of youth and watch in wonder and awe at the skills and strength of the players. We also reflect on the fantastic power of sport to lift many people up from disadvantage and let them grow to their full potential.
I think this is a great time to count our blessings. Time to pause and think seriously about what each of us can actually do to help create a world that is safe for children – a world where all children share that same chance to grow and achieve.
Because just like on the football field, good intentions and hopes are not enough. If we really care about children, we will take personal responsibility and do something.
Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST.
UPDATE - Correction: World Vision Australia acknowledges a notification from the NRL that the official ball of the League is manufactured by Steeden.
Steeden are certified by the International Standards Organisation under strict standards.
Steeden are also the founding member of the Sports for Good foundation of India that works to prevent child labour and the effects of child labour.
World Vision Australia apologises for any confusion.
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