From the age of twelve and throughout my secondary school years, in addition to studying at school, at various times I had a number of paid jobs. The most consistent of these, which I maintained for six years was as a newspaper delivery boy, walking around the streets near my home, pushing newspapers and magazines through the letter boxes of customers who had ordered them from the local newsagent. Each morning I would rise at 6.00 am, have breakfast, then collect my large bag of newspapers from the shop to begin my round, which on most mornings would take around 45 minutes to complete. The job involved few skills, other than remembering which newspapers or magazines had been ordered for each household, and that of avoiding a particularly unfriendly dog at number 18 Granville Street (a snarling black demon that on more than one occasion caused me to leap a wall in order to avoid becoming a dog’s breakfast!).
Once the summer holidays arrived I would seek further employment and amongst the varied jobs that I managed to obtain were periods as “van boy” assisting a driver with the delivery of groceries around the county’s villages, and assistant to a butcher which I recall involved a lot of cleaning of equipment and organisation of a walk-in refrigerator. These jobs served a number of purposes, not least of which was giving me some experience of working with a broad range of people from different walks of life, a certain self-discipline in getting myself organised for work and taking some responsibility for the task in hand, but to be frank, the greatest motivating factor was the fact that I was able to earn enough money to follow my interests and pursuits and to not be dependent upon my parents. In general I enjoyed the work; it was never onerous, and afforded me a certain independence that I relished. Whatever work I undertook did not interfere with my education and fitted well into a balanced routine of study, work and leisure.
My personal experiences led me to believe that gaining some kind of early employment opportunity might be beneficial, and I certainly would never have discouraged others from adopting a similar pattern to that which I had experienced as a youth. However, there are a number of important factors related to this statement about which I have been pondering for the last few days. Firstly, the choice to engage in limited paid employment during my school days was mine, nobody coerced me into labour, neither was I instructed that I should pursue any specific form of work. Secondly, and most importantly, the work that I did enabled me to follow my interests and in particular to continue to study and achieve the kind of education that has held me in good stead throughout my adult life. Finally, all of the employers for whom I worked were empathetic to the fact that I was still in education and recognised that they had a duty of care to ensure that my labours did not interfere with my ability to study. Furthermore, I can state quite confidently that I was never expected to undertake any task that might have placed me in danger, and that those who employed me were appropriately concerned for my welfare, (in all honestly that brute of a dog was far slower than I was and never really threatened me with any serious harm).
So, why have I been thinking about these matters for the past few days? Last week joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize were announced, both of whom came from the Indian sub-continent. I would imagine that many on hearing the announcement of the winners would have been familiar with the name Malala Yousufzai, the brave young Pakistani woman, who having been targeted and shot in the head by a narrow minded group of goondas who fear educated women, has since campaigned vigorously for the rights of girls to receive an education equal to that of their male peers. The publicity that she has gained in respect of educational rights, has fostered debate and encouraged other campaigners in many parts of the world to join her cause. Whilst Malala’s name has rightly gained recognition across the world, that of Kailash Sathyarthi with whom she shared the Nobel prize is I suspect, less known, and I must confess to my shame that until the announcement I knew nothing of this man.
Kailash Sathyarthi founded an organisation with headquarters in Delhi called Bachpan Bachao Andolan. This grassroots-level people’s movement has worked hard to draw attention to and campaign for an end of the exploitation of children, placing a focus particularly upon the issue of child labour. Reading about this determined gentleman and his activities prompted me to consider the lives of many children in India and beyond, and to contrast their situations with that which I experienced at the same age. Whilst reading around the issue of child labour and looking in particular at the work of Kailash Sathyarthi the extent of the challenges that he continues to face became much more apparent.
As a youth, I chose to work and did so in a way from which I benefited both financially and in terms of life experience. The children for whom Kailash Sathyarthi fights are in a totally different position. They work in order to help feed, house and clothe their families. The income that they make does not afford them additional luxuries or access to leisure activity, but is immediately consumed in the effort to survive. Their labours are not managed by benevolent employers who ensure either their safety, a decent wage, or their ability to continue their education, and they are often exploited in order to ensure maximum profits for unscrupulous organisations. All of this is far removed from the experiences of youth employment that myself and my contemporaries had growing up in an English city.
An article compiled by Ramya Kannan in the Hindu newspaper (19th October 2014) provides examples from several parts of India to demonstrate how, despite laws for the protection of children, many are continuing to be exploited through dangerous labour practices and denied an opportunity to education. Typical of the children highlighted in this article are Raja, aged 13, Sonu, 11, and Shiv, 6, who work for nine hours a day at a brick kiln near Patna. Raja simply sees this as the norm stating that:-
“I was born at a brick kiln in Gopalgunj district. Since then, I’ve been seeing my parents working at brick kilns. So it has come naturally for me to pick up the work.”
One of the thousands of brick kiln owners in the district admits that this is common practice, and appears unperturbed by the impact that this has upon the lives of these children.
From a different part of the country, another child, Akask reports that:-
“My father never allowed me to study. He never sent me to school. I wanted to learn, but he wanted me to go to the fields and earn,”
This same boy suggests that his father beat him when he didn’t work so he then decided to run away from home.
Some of the children interviewed for the Hindu article asked about their relationship to their employers claim hum bichwa gaye hain (we have been sold to them), indicating that such exploitation is at times simply regarded as another business transaction.
From the comfort of my desk in my study in England it is, of course, very easy to point a finger of blame and to express disgust that children can be so exploited. It is completely unfair to compare my own experiences to those of children living in such totally different circumstances from my own. The balance that I was so fortunate to experience in my life remains no more than a dream to many children around the world. There is also some danger in suggesting that the parents of these children are wholly to blame for the blighted youth of their offspring, when in fact the problem lies much deeper than this. The truth of the matter is that without the labours of their children, many of these families would not survive. Given better opportunities and more favourable living conditions, they too would seek a better education for their children. Until such time as the abject poverty in which such families are forced to live is addressed through more holistic approaches, we are destined to see children continuing to be abused and denied a right to education. Sadly the work of Kailash Sathyarthi and his colleagues will be required well into the future.