Tue | Sep 25, 2018

Editorial | When to boycott

Published:Saturday | July 28, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It is easy to stand on a platform and rally action against people who are suspected of carrying out criminal acts. But for people to act, there has to be credible evidence of this wrongdoing.

We refer to the call by Deputy Superintendent Carl Berry, head of the anti-human trafficking in persons unit of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, for a boycott of businesses whose products are tainted by child labour.

Berry was addressing an international human-trafficking conference in Trelawny where policymakers, enforcers, researchers, and social activists were discussing the global phenomenon of persons, including children, working in exploitative conditions with a view to improving their machinery to combat the egregious practice.

Exploitation is a serious problem. We are, therefore, encouraged that Jamaica has been heralded by the US Department of State for its efforts to cauterise human trafficking. As far as trafficking is concerned, persons are able to put a name and face to the offenders because there have been two convictions, nine prosecutions, and ongoing investigations into 40 potential cases.

But what about child labour? Jamaica has ratified the main international conventions concerning child labour, and there are laws making it a criminal offence to force children into work. Where this is happening, the appropriate government agencies have a duty to investigate, prosecute, convict, and punish the perpetrators and their accomplices. Here comes the rub: There are huge gaps between the legal framework and the enforcement.

For example, there are inspectors to monitor the labour force. Available data indicate that there were 16 inspectors in 2016. The International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends one inspector for every 15,000 workers in developing economies. According to the maths, Jamaica, with a working population of 1.3 million, needs 87 inspectors. In any event, these inspectors are mostly looking at the formal workplace instead of the informal sector, where more than 1,000 cases of child labour are reported annually.

There are no laws in Jamaica demanding that brands disclose their suppliers. There is no agency that informs the public whether produce comes from a farm that is engaged in forced or child labour. And the public cannot accurately guess who is being compliant with labour laws and abiding by fair labour practices.

So what are the options for the consumer? Usually, consumers will not worry too much about what they cannot see. However, we believe, on a moral level, that significant numbers of consumers may join a boycott of goods produced by children if they are aware of this practice among local businesses. How can the ordinary citizen know who is engaged in such nefarious activities?

It is a fact that consumer boycotts against companies that engage in child labour are growing around the world, and they have the effect of hitting the bottom line, hurting the company. In many instances, such campaigns have got businesses to change policy.

It's not unusual for children, particularly in rural Jamaica, to assist their parents on the farm and sometimes help with caring for livestock. This age-old practice is more in the vein of teaching children to appreciate the value of hard work and to develop a sense of responsibility. We don't think this is what the superintendent was referring to.

On the other hand, children who work in commercial situations are usually from households that cannot meet their basic needs - poor households. So poverty and deprivation have forced them into work.

The justice system can become creative in dealing with offenders. For example, if a company is found in violation of labour laws by using child labour, it should be compelled to use its resources to provide those children with skills training and educational opportunities.

We understand Mr Berry's passion for the subject, but would recommend caution in trying to use an American fix to solve our local problems. There is much more work to be done before we arrive at the boycott stage.

Meantime, we endorse the usefulness of such a conference, for it offered the opportunity to acknowledge and openly discuss the problem of forced labour, abuse and trafficking.