The Divide

I read a scary statistic this morning. The import of risky goods (products made using child labourers) into Canada increased by 31% last year. This statistic was a bit of a shock for me. Mostly because I assumed the Canadian government had regulations in place to prevent this kind of thing, but also that child labour still proliferates.

Here’s where my brain went when I asked the inevitable, why.

In an ever increasing global society, our world getting smaller and smaller, the likelihood that my children will encounter a person whose childhood consisted of weeks, months and years of labour, is high. The migration of individuals from every walk of life to every corner of the globe is not as far-fetched as it once was.

A hundred years ago, the idea that a young man raised in Connecticut, schooled at Harvard, and then living in New York City, would be working alongside a young man from a Bangladeshi slum was highly improbable. Today it’s entirely feasible.

So what, you say, what has this all got to do with child labour in Mexico? Isn’t this change of probabilities a good thing?

Most middle-class Westerners are conscious of the poverty divide. We talk a lot about it; we organise sit-ins and marches against the sordid 1% who work us all to the bone and live like kings. We revile their domination of the world. We take stock of our ever increasing personal debt, and then we ease our guilt by pointing at the Rothchilds of the world, saying, ‘It’s them. They did it; we’re all suffering because of them.’

We look at the youth slaving away in the tomato fields of Mexico, or the shoe factories of Bangladesh or any one of the hundreds of industries littered with little children working twelve-hour days, and we say, “that’s terrible, somebody do something!” And then we consume. And we consume, and we consume.

We live in a way which increases the divide. We’re horrified by the thought of a five-year-old with bleeding fingers stitching shoes, but then we go and purchase our little munchkins indoor shoes, and outdoor shoes, and water shoes, and dress up shoes and boots, and fill-in-the-blank shoes. Because they need them?

We weep for the lost childhoods of those people who can’t play. They have a right to play, we insist, and we sign a petition. And then we consume. We throw designer parties for our children; look who is turning 1… 2… 3…10…11! We buy bunting, and loot bags and ponies and monographed t-shirts (made by whom?). What’s the deal with all the over the top birthday parties? What happened to eating cake and playing tag with your friends in the back garden?

Come off it, Nat. If people want to make a splash of it, what’s the problem? The ever-widening divide is the problem. The divide is the place where evil grows; it’s the birthplace of misunderstanding and disagreement. How will your little man, whose life has been lavishly celebrated at every single turn, relate to a colleague who has never so much as had a birthday cupcake. Their life expectations and frame of references are so far apart; they couldn’t possibly comprehend each other… and prejudice proliferates, and anger mounts and violence dominates. All because we can’t friggin understand one another; we’re a planet of aliens.

I’m not saying don’t buy shoes and don’t have birthday parties; I’m simply trying to highlight the fact that we all, us middle-classers, are complicit in the divide. Stop consuming. I’m serious. Stop it. We can’t rage at the machine when we’re on the outside cranking the handle.

The reason there are more children in slavery today than ever before in history (that’s a fact, not hyperbole), is because the average Joe human is consuming more than ever before. Yes, we can insist that our governments pass legislation that prevents importing ‘risky goods’. Yes, we can help humanitarian groups who go about exposing child labour. All that is necessary and useful. But the most simple thing every single one of us can do is, stop buying stuff. Does your child own more than three pairs of shoes? Why? It’s so easy to justify, right? I just did it, too!

Let’s try not to, okay? We can do better. And then we can point to the 1% and not be hypocrites, because, let’s face it, right now we are just that.

Happy Monday, Folks.

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