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The invisible hand

By Rosie Williams - posted Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the welfare of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. Adam Smith (1937, The Wealth of Nations).

One of the biggest media stories of 2006 was the rescue attempt of the Beaconsfield miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell. Our hearts were caught up with that mission and released when Webb and Russell walked away from the mineshaft free men.

But how many of us know and feel for Wilson Peter, a 12-year-old boy who risks his young life each day in gemstone mines which support Tanzania's $300 million a year industry? (Tanzanite Gem Slaves, courtesy ILO). Wilson knows full well the risks he faces due to lack of safety standards and equipment but is powerless to change his circumstances: “The mine can collapse on you. When sifting, you swallow the dust. It’s not a good idea for children to work in the mines", he says.


In this global age, we in the Western world are consumers while those in the developing world are often our producers. Consumers have a right to determine the quality of the goods that line their supermarket shelves, weekend markets and department stores. But as consumers, what responsibility do we have to the hands that first touched the food on our table, or the shirt on our back?

Thanks to the Don’t Trade Lives campaign run by World Vision, many of us are aware of the imported chocolate farmed by child labourers. Sadly, many of our everyday purchases, from sporting goods, jewellery, clothes, shoes and rugs are made by children under conditions we find unfathomable. Pick up a nearby item: a box of matches, cigarette, a bracelet. Any of these could have been made by a small child working 12-hour days to pay off family debt.

Had he lived, Iqbal Masih would now be 26-years-old. Iqbal was a bonded Pakistani debt-slave who was tied to a loom and forced to make carpets from the age of four. His story of slavery was not unusual. What made Iqbal unique was that he fought not only for his own freedom but for that of others. After the Bonded Labour Liberation Front helped him to freedom and recovery, Iqbal went on to champion the rights of children internationally. Iqbal’s political success led to his assassination on Easter Sunday 1995. He was 13-years-old. Iqbal was posthumously awarded the World’s Childrens Prize for the Rights of the Child in 2000.

As globalisation has increased the access of Multinational Corporations to the cheap labour of impoverished peoples, it has also increased the flow of information to the West about the consequences of this exploitation. We no longer need to be ignorant of the torturous conditions that account for the bargain-basement prices we pay to participate in the consumer culture.

Globalisation has also increased the trafficking of vulnerable people into debt-bondage. According to Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, people-trafficking is a world-wide phenomenon with no country untouched by this blemish on human conscience. Sweat shops and the exploitation of migrant workers are common problems even in developed countries: the controversial Australian 457 Visa is now under review by the Federal Government.

International Human Rights Day is an annual celebration with December 10, 2008 marking 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Celebrations include the international “Every Human Has Rights Media Awards”. The journalism awards allow the public to vote online for the best media on human rights from a pool of almost 500 entries screened by experienced journalists and human rights experts including Katy Cronin (Walkley Award Winner) and Aiden White (International Federation of Journalists).


Australia is a signatory to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 23: (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The International Labour Organisation is the agency within the United Nations which works specifically for the rights of working people by implementing a set of labour standards through international law and a wide range of projects. “Exploited labour” includes practices which do not meet the ILO definition of “decent work”. This includes child labour and slavery. The United Nations Human Rights Council investigates these human rights violations. In reality however, there is great difficulty in exposing and preventing human rights abuses that occur in manufacturing processes through the ILO alone.

In addition to this first charter of broad human rights, the United Nations has introduced other charters to deal specifically with child labour. The Worst Forms of Child Labour (Convention 182) was introduced in 1999 to outlaw the “predefined worst forms” of child labour. The Convention defines the worst forms of child labour as slavery, bonded labour, prostitution, pornography, forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, use of children in drug trafficking and other illicit activities, and all other work harmful or hazardous to the health, safety or morals of girls and boys under the age of 18.

In addition to international law, each country has their own national legislation regarding employment relations which is compiled by the ILO for research purposes. However it must be understood that this legislation does not operate in a vacuum. Other policy instruments put in place by the World Trade Organization, such as Free Trade Zones, allow Multinational Corporations to exploit the vulnerability of poor countries who offer deniability and shield them from exposure for the practices of their subcontractors.

In the words of Hugh Cunningham (Past and Present, 1999):

Fifty years ago it might have been assumed that, just as child labor had declined in the developed world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so it would also, in a trickle-down fashion, in the rest of the world. Its failure to do that, and its re-emergence in the developed world, raise questions about its role in any economy, whether national or global.

Tolstoy reputedly said that “Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal - that there is no human relation between master and slave”. While the international human rights community does its best to increase oversight of industry, International Human Rights Day 2008 is an opportunity for we as consumers to awaken our compassion toward the invisible hands at the other end of the supply chain and ask what can we do to set them free?

Ethical Shopping

The Fair Trade Labelling Australia & New Zealand Organisation administers a product labelling system based on auditing of the manufacturing process to ensure fair price and environmental protections for the products they certify.

Rugmark administers a labelling system for handwoven rugs which ensures the manufacturing process is free of child labour.

Ethical Investment

The Australian Stock Exchange hosts an advice page on ethical investment which states that “Under Australian Corporations Law, investment managers are required to show in their Product Disclosure Statements “the extent to which labour standards or environmental, social or ethical considerations are taken into account in the selection, retention or realisation of the investment”.

Ethics in Education

Support The Oaktree Foundation project which, among other projects, helps to end child slavery by building schools in India. Oaktree Foundation visits and works with schools empowering students to make a difference in the world.

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Rosie Williams is the founder of which tracks government grants.

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