Child labor and Sanjiv

Peregrine sewing with neighbors I’m sitting on my mattress writing an essay about child laborers. Three feet in front of me, a child laborer colors on a piece of paper. The coloring is probably little Alisha’s1 best intellectual stimulation in days.

To my left, Sanjiv is hammering away at Peregrine’s purse, fixing a strap that’s been broken for months. He fixed the zipper on my laptop cover before that. In both instances we didn’t ask him to do it, but he’s in our room a lot and just noticed things that needed fixing. On another day Senna, their older sister, had helped teach Peregrine how to use the manual sewing machine.

Sanjiv and Senna stay home all day making purses with their parents.2 Neither has ever gone to school. We’re taking advantage of the job skills of child laborers.

Is it a bad thing that we let him fix our things today, getting an advantage from skills that he picked up while he could have been in school learning to read? Or is it a good thing because we’re giving him a chance to feel important and serve us in some way, making our relationship more even? Should we pay him for what he’s doing? Or is it better to keep a give-and-take as part of our friendship, where we share our food and buy him notebooks and pencils to draw and color with, and he fixes our zippers and purse straps?

These are the questions we ask ourselves. I can buy breakfast from Samir’s 15-year-old daughter Shumaiya and her 13-year-old cousin Tabassum as they roll out pooris for their dad. Dinner could come from a teenager I see who works all day to prepare fish for her mom’s restaurant. I pass doors where young boys who should be in elementary school are weaving rugs and shaping sandals. Nearly every corner store will be manned by a preteen for at least part of the day. The garbage on the streets will be picked up by kids as young as three, to later be sorted for recyclables by kids of every age. And professional beggars at the intersection start almost from birth, as infants are loaned to begging women to elicit sympathy until the kids are old enough to walk around and pull on shirts with pleading eyes.

Figuring out appropriate responses to child labor are some of the “big” questions we find ourselves dealing with here. Whether to give to a begging child, whether to buy clothes made by a 12-year-old, what to say to parents who are barely surviving even with the help of their working children. Child labor (with the tied-in issue of education) is becoming a situation that I’m considering putting at the center of my life here.

And I can’t say that I have the answers.


[1] Names changed out of respect for privacy

[2] postscript: A few months after we moved in, Senna and Sanjiv’s family began allowing them to attend school for the first time in their life. We were excited for them and like to think we might have had something to do with it. Halfway through the school year, while the family was visiting their home village, their landlord affixed a padlock to the door due to underpaid rents that had been building up for years, and later sold all of their belongings and rented out the room to someone else. We never saw them again. .

4 thoughts on “Child labor and Sanjiv

  1. ostomacadel

    Thanks Stranger, beautiful blog. I haven’t got the answers either. I find this tricky with some of my students too… sometimes their bosses seem quite reasonable & friendly. And another big question – how much better would going to a government school be anyway. But that hardly justifies child labour.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m often very torn about child labor. On the one hand, yes it is awful- on the other, is it more awful than life would be without the money they earn? If we save them from these jobs, will they be able to eat? I wonder about this a lot.

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  3. My greatest issue is not actually the idea of the kid working in itself, it’s what the work does to the kid’s long-term future.

    Almost any work that people trust a child to do is by design menial. Nearly all of the kids who do this kind of work get very little mental stimulation out of it. By the time they’re 18, they’ve missed out on their education, spent half of their days in brain-dulling repetitive work, and have only one marketable skill….whatever they were doing as a child laborer.

    Thus, they grow up to be the kind of parents who earn the type of income which requires their children to work to make ends meet. It’s a self-perpetuating chain.

    Also, why are wages so low in places with child labor? Because there’s a glut of labor. Why is there a glut of labor? Well, in part because there are millions of children in the labor force. Children can work for ridiculously low wages because they’re rarely the sole breadwinner (I’ve seen kids get less than ten cents a day for a full day’s work), thus undercutting wages for everyone else. And if you remove all the kids from the labor supply, you would strongly increase the overall demand for labor and wages would go up for that reason as well. Thus, the parents of such kids would no longer need to send their kids to work to make ends meet, because their own labor would be worth much more.

    If you removed kids from the labor force, got them meaningful educational opportunities instead, and wages rose naturally as a result, then I think the large majority of working-class families would be better off than they were when their children were working. There would still be some that would fall through the gaps (like the rural parents who send their kids to an urban labor market, or parents who are dead or decrepit), but those need to be addressed with fundamental changes to the rural economy and a social safety net, respectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This troubles me immensly. What I saw, a little, and more the sickening knowledge that I am complicit (in what I buy, especially, but also in what I didn’t know how to ask about it, in what I ignored). I don’t know how to respond to it either. But I’m not alone either, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

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