Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oh Forbes! You Came So Close!

A recent issue of Forbes Magazine has a cover image of a young boy, laboring away as his underaged hands weave a carpet for export. The cover copy suggests I'll find a story about child labor inside. I'm intrigued.

As I read the short write-up on the realities of child labor, I'm fixated on both the article and the fact that Forbes has chosen to highlight this horrific epidemic. I'm glad they've chosen to play the role of flashlight, shining truth into the dark realities of where our clothes and household goods come from.

Wonderful facts and analysis jump out:
Teenagers in the Midwest get $7 an hour so they can spend it at the mall. Their Indian counterparts are getting 20 cents an hour to buy food.
And then I read how it's the demand of the consumer that essentially enslaves young children to a life of production:
It's a fact of a global economy, and will continue to be, as long as Americans (and Europeans) demand cheap goods – and incomes in emerging economies remain low.
The article is accompanied by photos of young people working in fields and factories, forcing the reader to take a look at his or her own shirt and wonder, “Did a kid make this?”

As I continue to turn the pages, I finish the article. And I said out loud, “That's it? That's it?!?!?!?

The article is a great primer in what child labor is. And it does a fair job of pointing out the realities of the situation today. The piece even mentions a few companies to have known ties to child labor. Overall it's a good piece. But it's lacking in one key area.

It doesn't tell me what to do about it.

There is no call to action. If such a worldwide phenomenon is so problematic (as the article suggests), then where is the checklist of possible remedies? If the problem persist due to my lust for discounted goods, then where are the recommendations for me to stop perpetuating such a problem? The article highlights the problem, but never mentions a solution.

There is no talk of eliminating from my personal portfolio companies that use child labor.
There is no suggestion of a consumer boycott of clothes and goods made with tiny hands.
There is no mention of a better system to prevent such practices.
There is no information about who I can contact to voice my concern.
There is no recommendation for ways to kick my consumption habit, and therefore save lives.

It's easy to argue that this isn't Forbes' role in the world. It's easy to suggest that as a business magazine that promises readers insight into financial markets and wealth management, it doesn't fill the role of seer or moral advisor. Forbes exists to tell the stories important to the business community, not to tell the individual consumer what is 'wrong' or 'right.'

But such a spinning of the perceived intent of this journalistic endeavor is just an excuse for apathy. By letting Forbes off the hook on an editorial technicality, we remain complicit in its silence in the wake of injustice.

With a quarter-page insert, Forbes could have changed the game and flipped the focus and shown its power to make a difference and change the world. It is possible to propose a remedy without being authoritarian. It is possible to paint a picture of a better tomorrow without mandating adherence to such a vision. And it is possible to not only highlight a problem, but to show us the necessary tools to fix it. (To be fair, Forbes does have a series of recommendations in the form of a slide show on their site. But the print readers misses it.)

I for one would love to see such activism take the form of stories and essays. I'd love for newspapers and magazines the world over to not just tell the stories that need telling, but to also propose how to change the things that need changing. After all, storytelling will only get us so far. Because unless we get up from the campfire and venture out into the world of need, the stories will begin to sound more and more familiar.

Here's to the brave ones, who after hearing the stories, are willing to grab a torch and get to marching.

Comments (3)

i am pretty sure it is because nobody wants to do what it takes... obviously, if we are going to not live off the backs of unfair wages, then there are going to have to be drastic changes... either the shirt has to cost more, the company has to profit less or both... and that doesn't even touch the issues of what's going on in the countries... i have lived in various parts of asia for 5 years and the other dynamic includes the fact that parents NEED their children to work in order to survive - whether it be begging or in a sweatshopt... i once offered a woman to allow me to be the foster parent to her 5 year old daughter who was running the streets with her hand out... the mother refused purely because she knew the little girl was able to earn a lot for the family....

anyway, the issue is painfully complex.... but then again simple at the same time... we want to make sacrifices, then there can be changes... we don't, then there will not.

Sam,

Just wondering what an "unfair" wage is. Should people in India be making 7 dollars an hour? Would 5 suffice? I mean, obviously, they'd be much wealthier if they were making 10 dollars an hour, correct?

When your other option is begging in the street and starving to death, 20 cents an hour looks good. And people making that is the only way for an economy to develop. Eventually, people from the factor will save their money and start some sort of business to cater to those that now have consistent income to buy things. And wages will rise as the economy grows as long as Indians slow down with making babies.

It happened in New England in the 1800s, and look at us now. Who would have ever imagined that a third world agrarian nation would eventually become the economic powerhouse of the world?

Brian Campbell

11:48 PM

Currently, the Department of Labor is putting together a list of goods and the countries those goods are produced in which are produced by forced labor and child labor. While the process will not capture all goods produced by child labor, once the list is published later this year, that could be a good place to start looking when making purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, the DOL has decided not to list companies known to use child labor, preferring to list a more general "industry."

I would also encourage everyone to purchase Fair Trade products. While product certification like Fair Trade cannot guarantee that children were not involved in production, it does guarantee that the company has made significant efforts, and put monitoring systems in place, to detect child labor.

Hopefully, in the near future, other certification programs similar to Rugmark, Fair Trade or even a broader sustainable agriculture certification that includes child labor monitoring, will be developed and will provide consumers with the information they need to make good purchasing decisions.