Opinion: Why Apple SHOULD get children to make your iPad

02Mar10

Apple, and many other American corporations, sometimes indirectly employ children to make their goods. After public outcry or an audit, the practice is usually stopped — at least until it quietly starts again without anyone noticing. Recently Apple took action against some of it’s own Chinese suppliers for just that, as Apple isn’t the sort of corporation to tolerate that sort of thing. However, in a world where poor children are ruthlessly exploited, abused, and even murdered, because they have no place to go — could offering the poorest of the world’s children fair, part-time employment actually be a force for good?

Here is a comment posted to TUAW in response to the story about Apple taking action against some of it’s suppliers for employing 15 year olds (legally under-age):

I write this on my iPhone while currently living in China.

Most workers in Chinese factories around Shenzhen have moved from the rural countryside to find employment. I would bet money that these 15 year olds either have lost a parent due to illness, or the parent is too sick to work. So they moved to find a stable job to support their family.

Being 15 and choosing to work full-time to support your family shouldn’t be frowned upon, it’s easy for us to peer out of our first world luxury ivory towers and cast judgement.

These teenagers aren’t rounded up and forced to work at gun point, 15 year olds are in school or they are working to feed their families.

Major companies supply better working conditions than the other less savoury options for making ends meet.

Perhaps this person has a point. As children in the developing world are compelled or forced to earn money to feed their families (a sad reality for millions of children today), would you rather have them working on an assembly line, or as a prostitute? or involved with a gang?

Clearly, we would love every child to have the same opportunities afforded to middle-class Western children in their GAP t-shirts, eating their Big Macs, while texting on their phone about the American Idol result. However, that isn’t happening, and may not happen for centuries. The reality of 2010 is that millions of children are working as prostitutes, soldiers, and drug-dealers to feed their own bellies or those of their families. Many of these are also living on the streets.

This child in Africa lives on the street, and is seen here eating donated food out of a bowl on the floor, like an animal.

In that context, I ask you this: would it be so wrong for rich western companies to offer children a place to work, a place to earn skills, and a place to earn money? Assuming they are paid well, given good training, have reasonable (part-time) hours, and looked after?

Sure, it may feel weird to know your iPod was put together by a 12 year-old, but if that 12-year old was taken off the streets, given practical skills, and paid a fair wage, would it not be a kind of capitalist-style charity, that benefits both consumer and worker? Or would we prefer that the child remains on the streets, selling their bodies for enough cash to buy their next fix of drugs? Of course I’m sure you would prefer the kid was in school. But if the incompetent and corrupt government of said country doesn’t have any school places, then where else is the kid supposed to go? Currently, the answer is usually crime and/or prostitution.

I’m sorry, but I’d much prefer that they were given a job, training, and a fair wage for a fair number of hours worked.

I propose that corporations should deliberately open their factories in the poorest countries, and then be open to the part-time hiring and training of those under age 18 (exactly how young they should be hired is another subject of discussion entirely). Sure, it’s not as good as free college places, but it’s better than what they have now –- nothing –- and better than a free meal, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Even in the recent history of the West, children were put to work. Sure, there was the exploitation — such as the children forced to work in the coal mines of Victorian Britain — but children have also been taught to work, work well, and benefitted from it! Millions were trained as apprentices, or learned to work on the farms, or learned trades, and given skills which set them up for life. There is no rule stating that all jobs for under-18s must be slavery and exploitation. Even in modern countries, such as Canada, you can legally work part-time at McDonalds at age 14 — and many such 14-year olds quite enjoy it.

There is absolutely no reason why American corporations cannot set up a system of employment for children in the developing world, where they are not exploited, but given opportunities with which their families and governments could never provide them.

And I’ll tell you one thing I know for sure: this would do a whole lot more good than those stupid “make poverty history” rubber wrist-bands. Remember those? Yes, they’re busy decomposing (slowly) in your local land-fill site. Meanwhile, the world’s poor children are still living on the streets and scavenging garbage dumps for something to eat.

You may have heard it said:

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life.”

Well, I say:

“Give a child in the developing world a meal, he eats for a day; treat him fairly and well with a small part-time job and relevant training, and he may have the skills to support himself for the rest of his life.”

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