Save the Children – Stop Buying Misery

Cupertino, California — At its most recent media event, Apple unveiled the release date of one of its child labourers.

“We are very proud to announce that Apple will be releasing Li Min Zhang on April the 15th,” said CEO Tim Cook to an audience of tech reporters at the company’s quarterly press event. “For the past five years, Li Min has been a crucial component of Apple’s success, and we wish her all the best as she moves on to other endeavours.” Mr. Cook then reiterated that Li Min and her tiny hands and low wage requirements will be greatly missed at Apple’s Chinese facility, but with her 12th birthday coming up, she has become rather outdated in today’s fast-paced manufacturing world. “Rest assured, we are working very hard at trying to find the next generation of Li Min’s out there that can take this company to the next level.” Following the announcement, journalists asked if Apple had plans to release any more of its child labourers, to which Mr Cook replied, “not at this time, no.”*

Child Labour and Child Slavery
It is always disturbing to think that child labour and slave labour are still being used.  As terrifying as that is, we sort of know it happens in the poorer, developing parts of the world or simply shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves what can I do? before returning to playing with our iPhone, going shopping for clothes or comfort eating some chocolate – but what if you knew that even these innocent pastimes have the potential to reward those who profit from the sweat of little children?

Child Slave
The range of companies using child and slave labour is absolutely frightening. Of course, they tell us they “don’t know” or that “there’s nothing we can do”.  Yeah, right – whatever.  There is actually a lot they can do, an awful lot, but of course because that might affect their profits; they just get on with it in the hope that not too many people notice, make a fuss or even blog about it.

Approximately 220 million children between 5 and 17 are forced by factory owners, their own relatives or state organisations to work up to 15 hours a day 7 days a week. More than half are involved in hazardous industries and endure dangerous conditions, while many are subjected to beatings, humiliation and sexual violence from their employers. The most shameful statistic of all is that about 10 million of these children are actually slaves – sold or bonded by their families, or simply kidnapped, then sold on as a commodity, with little or no interest beyond the money being taken, to consider what the new owner will make the poor child do.

Despite countless studies, initiatives and action plans for change very little changes. Even after catastrophes like last year’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, where hundreds of children were among the 1,130 people who died and thousands injured, recent undercover investigations show that little if anything has improved in Bangladesh despite the public hand wringing and promises made by many western garment industry brands, with factories there.

So there is little I can add to the ongoing debate beyond appealing to your conscience next time you are thinking of buying anything from one or more of the companies involved. I was going to use the phrase name and shame but too many companies have displayed time and time again that they have little shame when it comes to exploiting child or slave labour to cut their costs. Anyway here are just a few of the many big names involved in this filthy trade.

Victoria’s Secret
They say they only use “fair trade cotton”, but there is nothing Fair about it. VS uses cotton grown in Burkina Faso, a country, where there is not enough labour available to run the farms, so they use children instead.  So yes, it might be fair trade because it comes from Africa, but it actually means that you are buying fabrics that are made from cotton picked by a little 11 year old girl who sleeps under a piece of plastic and gets shouted at to get up for work.

Companies who use Chinese Factories
The Chinese are not particularly big on human rights. So it probably won’t surprise you when I say there are hundreds of companies sourcing their products from Chinese factories and work camps that use slave and child labour. In these places, children are housed with adult employees in dorms that sleep up to 20, where everyone shares bowls of water and sponges to wash because there are no showers. Their working environment, often icy cold in winter but boiling hot in the summer, is where they endure 15 hour shifts with no time off.  Many children are not even allowed to speak to each other and are often forced to take part in military drills or are subjected to sexual harassment.  

So, who uses these factories? Apple are the biggest to admit to using child labour well, they couldn’t do anything else after eleven kids were caught working in one of their factories, but there are hundreds of others companies involved in this odious practice.

If you buy cheap Chinese goods there is a fair chance a child made it – that is perhaps why these items often prove to be so inferior to those made in other countries; countries where the Quality Control Department is not an angry man wielding a bamboo cane!

I guess we should’ve known that offering products as cheaply as they do can only come from unethical practices.  In fact, a recent documentary from the BBC showed an 11 year old children sewing the products that are sold in the Secret Possessions Range of Primark.  Primark places huge pressures on their suppliers to provide items quickly and cheaply, which leads to absolutely shameful abuses of children and slave labourers.

Phillip Morris
PM actually admitted that 72 children work on the farms from which Philip Morris buys its tobacco plants.  The youngest of these was just 10 years old.  The problem is that they only admitted this when they were forced to by Human Rights Watch.  The children had terrible neck and stomach rashes, their passports were confiscated, essentially enslaving them, and they were force to work overtime without pay. So if you do smoke – Philip Morris makes: Marlboro, Cambridge, Benson & Hedges, Commander, Chesterfield, English Ovals, Dave’s, L&M, Lark, Parliament, Merit, Players and Virginia Slims – time to change brands?

Choc Bar

We all know Nike have used child labour for years and years, often in factories where human rights are broken on an almost daily basis. People are kicked and slapped and verbally abused. This is particularly true for the Converse factories in Indonesia – so how much do you really want those Converse All Stars? While Nike are quick to remind us that they have stringent standards, they also admit that at least 75% of the suppliers they use don’t meet these standards. So why have any standards at all?  Indeed, in many of their factories workers don’t even get minimum wage, why? It isn’t as if Nike can’t afford it because producing a pair of top end Nike’s (or Converse) only costs between $0.88 and $3.  Add to this shipping and tax and it basically costs Nike between $4 and $6.  These are the shoes that you will actually pay between $45 and $200 for!  

Wal-Mart – Asda
In Bangladesh, some young girls making Wal-Mart – Asda shirts are forced to work 84 hours a week for $0.20 an hour and receive zero health care or maternity leave. Undercover filming by the Exposure programme also found clothes produced for Lee Cooper, BHS, Gap, Benetton and Abercrombie & Fitch and other US and European retailers in similar factories, where workers were physically and verbally abused and fire safety ignored.

Next time you go shopping there are 2 steps you can take towards saving some of these children. The first is easy, ask yourself do you really need it or are you simply buying it because it is cheap? Then if you absolutely must buy something, please check the label, not so much for the fancy name but to understand where it really came from so you can Stop Buying Misery .

* I have long since forgotten who emailed me the original opening paragraph, now paraphrased, so I take no credit for it.


Dialogue in the Dark

A few weeks ago I found myself in the unusual position of being in Istanbul with no real plans; at least for a few hours. So I took a metro out to Gayrettepe, which is only one stop before Levent, my local station when I last lived in the city almost 10 years ago. However, this was not a trip down memory lane because I was drawn to an exhibition, or rather an experience that I had heard a lot about and wanted to see, or rather not see what the fuss was all about.

Dialogue in the Dark arrived in the city last December and was opened for the first time on the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Essentially a blind guide takes some eight visitors on a tour through a simulated Istanbul, which spreads across a 1,500-square-meter hall next to the Gayrettepe Metro Station. However, the big difference of course is that this tour is carried out in total darkness; hence the roles are completely reversed because the people with sight need the help of their blind guide, which is contrary to the reality that the visually-impaired experience every single day.

As I did not know what to expect, I was surprised, when after being told to take off our watches and put our phones and bags into a locker, we were all given a white stick with a small ball attached. Then we were shown into the first outer room, where there was still some fractions of light so we could adjust to the darkness before being called into the next room, which was total dark. At first you almost got the sense that the person calling you was perhaps disembodied, perhaps speaking from a sound system, but very quickly you hear them around you and occasionally you even bump into them as you often do, with your fellow visitors. Our guide, one of the 30 employed on this project, who had the extra complication of communicating to us both in Turkish and English was Erhan, a man none of us had ever seen, but whose firm but calm voice, gave you the confidence to trust him completely with your safety.
Dialogue In The Dark
Erhan lead us through a series of rooms, or rather, well simulated situations beginning with a park and progressing through a busy street until we climbed onto a tram – indeed the sounds around us left you in no doubt that it was intended to represent the same tram that rides up and down Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street off Taksim Square. Despite knowing that you were safely inside a simulated situation, it was strange how many times you felt both a little worried as well as intrigued, by the sounds around you. These different situations made you not only focus on every little sound, but your sense of touch also seemed to be heightened as your stick would alert you to an obstacle, like a fence a step of a bicycle, which you could only identify after having a good feel.

Towards the end we were led into a cafe, where there was another blind person eager to serve us. He read out a list of things available (no alcohol) and their prices. However, you are immediately faced with a problem that blind people must face every day – Trust. I knew I had money in my wallet, but how would I know if I was handing over a 5 Lira or a 200 Lira banknote? After a few moments, where I assume Erhan left us in silence to feel that conflict of trust, he told us that the cafe had a special machine that measures the size of each and every banknote so the correct change can be given, and yet only two of us felt brave enough to order a drink.

The final experience of our journey was climbing on board a Kadikoy ferry boat and sailing across the Bospherous to a sound track of water, ships horns and seagulls that felt so close, you instinctively wanted to lift your hands to shoo them away. Before we docked Erhan asked us all individually how long we thought we had been with him. like most, I said about forty five minutes, while someone said half an hour and another almost an hour. We had actually been there for one hour and forty minutes, which was quite a shock. Erhan explained that this is an almost universal reaction because we were so engaged with our other senses, relying on them possibly more than we had ever done before, that our sense of timing had suffered as a consequence.

In Istanbul, like many cities in the near and middle east, I often get a sense that Health & Safety precautions are quite optional. Unguarded holes in roads or pavement, and insufficient, or no safety railings whatsoever around lethal drops onto rubble or concrete, mean that several fully sighted people die and hundreds are seriously injured every single year from falls around the city; so I could only imagine how difficult and dangerous it might be for the visually impaired.

The tour was now over and so we went through a couple of rooms, where the light gradually increased until we eventually saw Erhan for the first time. It was odd, most of us had imagined what he had looked like but hardly anyone had guessed right. He was quite a good looking man, with longish hair, and because he had a tiny fraction of sight, his eyes appeared quite normal. However, the one thing I noticed, above all else, was just how comfortable and at ease he was in our world, which was quite contrary to the way we were in his, just 2 minutes earlier.

The exhibition has now run in more than 30 countries, 125 cities and over 7,000 visually impaired individuals have been able to earn an income and recognition, along with over 8 Million visitors to the event worldwide.

A recent study held by this Hamburg-based enterprise showed that an astonishing 100% of visitors who were questioned five years later remembered the experience. Around 90% of those interviewed reported feeling sensitized to the world of the blind, 55% recommended Dialogue in the Dark to their friends and family, and 34% wanted to experience the exhibition a second time.

I certainly won’t forget my Dialogue in the Dark.

The experience is set to run into the summer, so if you find yourself in Istanbul or any of the other cities around the world, where it runs please check it out – you won’t be disappointed. However, as the English commentaries in Istanbul only happen on Saturdays, avoid disappointment by booking ahead here