Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Diamond Industry: Child Exploiter or Savior?

In my recent article on the Kimberley Process, a lady commented about the abuse of small children in India in the diamond (cutting) manufacturing industry. 
("Kimberley Process: The Fairy Tale Your Mother Never Told.") This was interesting to me because abuse and opportunity often exist side by side. Not only is this true in the diamond industry, but throughout the entire world in nearly every business, culture and society.

Currently and historically, people have been exploited and abused to generate income and profit for unscrupulous diamond mine owners. Until recently, people were forced at gunpoint to work in the diamond mines, fields and rivers in conflict riddled countries. It is obvious to all that this kind of abuse is wrong and cannot be tolerated in a civilized world. There are some wonderful articles and essays written on the Blood Diamond subject. This is not one of them.
In this article, I would ask the reader to examine a less coercive form of exploitation. I would like to talk about the working of children in the labor force, and of the extremely low wages paid to children, in the mining and polishing of diamonds. Many in the West cannot understand how parents, governments, and societies in Africa, Asia and parts of South America can allow children to be taken out of school and forced to work. Often these children work as many hours and as hard as adults do.
Unfortunately, people in the West have short and convenient memories. It was not so long ago that our predecessors had their children working alongside because they felt they had no choice. This was common in the Western world, especially in agrarian societies. Additionally, society saw this phenomenon as a useful tool in teaching skills and life values to the young. Furthermore, education was not relegated to schools only. In the past, few people went to college. Most skills were learned in the workplace and apprenticeship was common.
Children were sent to apprentice with knowledgeable and skilled artisans and their education was within their chosen trade. The families and children were grateful for the opportunity, and the company was happy to have an inexpensive work force that could be trained in the company's ways, skills and culture.
The parents received the small wages that the children earned and the family benefited. Sometimes, the wages of the children made the difference between hunger and sufficient food for the family. As the children grew and developed in their understanding and skills, their wages increased and they were assured of making a decent living. Not only did the individual benefit, the whole family and their descendents benefited by the family having increased wealth and status in their community.
Today the world has not changed for billions of people. They are no different from the people of previous generations whose opportunities were severely limited.Even today, the education for their children is either non-existent or sorely lacking. In addition, for many, if their children do not enter into an apprenticeship or go to work in the diamond mining industry, they will literally starve or face hunger often.
Is it fair? Fairness is irrelevant, this is life in the real world. Often in life, our choices seem to be dictated. Such is the case with the majority of the children. The question never is; should the children go to work? No, the question is; are they treated with respect and care?
According to the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, "When the Superior is not respected and the Subordinate is not cared for, disaster will follow." This warning from nearly 3000 years ago still holds true today. The children must go to work. The families have no choice. Wise companies take good care of the children. Shortsighted companies abuse and exploit the children. Is it moral to have young children working? Ask anyone who has ever faced real hunger. An empty stomach, has its own morality.
One further point I would like to add. Some people, no matter how fortunate they are, and no matter how many opportunities they have, may rarely, if ever achieve success. Others, though they come from humble beginnings and have little opportunity may nevertheless succeed. If you are employed, even in the ditches of Africa, you have a chance to learn, grow and pull yourself up. Your chance may be small, but you have an opportunity simply because you have a job. Give a man a handout and you take away his dignity. Give him a job, and you give him dignity and respect.
Life is unfair. According to Vasistha, an ancient Indian sage, we experience pleasure and pain on account of the passage of time and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The children workers have a chance in life to be successful. Perhaps the children who do not find jobs are the real victims?

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