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On impulse I asked the lady having her shoes shined how much the boy was charging. Around 50p ($0.75 or €0.75) seemed good—cheap enough to afford while travelling on a tight budget, expensive enough to feel like there were two sides to the deal. The box on which he made me put my foot was roughly made but contained the tools he needed—soap, wax, polish, cloths, and brushes—to give my shoes a shine they’d not had since I first bought them.
About halfway through the shine I realised that I was breaking a UN convention. Forget that I was paying what was locally a good sum of money for the work. Forget that I was going to give him a pen too—big deal: have you ever met a doctor who needs another pen? Forget also that the money from my job would have gone towards the rental, lease, or purchase of his kit, moving him cent by cent closer to the prospect of owning his own chair and stool, with the pride, self respect, and status that this would give him.
The fact was that this was a child of about 11 years, kneeling before me, dirtying his hands with polish so that I might be able to see my face in my shoes. The UN convention states, in article 19, that children should be protected from exploitation. At 11 years old pretty much any true work is exploitation. Household chores, yes. Playing with friends after school, yes. Shining shoes in the street, no.
This was the first time I’d overtly—or knowingly—flaunted an international convention. But thinking about it I realised that covertly we flaunt this particular article on a daily basis. This happens every time we buy an item from an unknown source in a country which is itself unwilling or unable to abide by the convention. Looked at another way, our very way of life depends on exploitation. How else could we buy something as complex as a television for a mere few hundred pounds, or as simple as a T-shirt for less than ten? The worker, being paid a few dollars a day, is likely either to be a child, or an adult earning so little that there is no prospect of sending his or her own children to school. There is a direct link between the price we pay for the goods and the fact that the worker requires his or her own children to work as well.
We feel justifiably pleased—maybe even smug—about our own laws which aim to protect children. This is comparable to the smugness we felt in the days of empire, when we pointed out to less enlightened nations that we didn’t use slaves. Well, not in Britain we didn’t, because we had plenty working for us all over the rest of the Empire and beyond. We owe our current place towards the top of the developed world hierarchy to that exploitation, and we maintain our place there in a manner which is only slightly less exploitative.
The developing world—some parts more than others—is developing as a consequence of the efforts of its workforce, often employed under extraordinarily competitive conditions by companies who will move production from country to country to secure the lowest price—or, depending on your view, the highest efficiency. In some of these countries the underage workforce is an important contributor to that efficiency. Our position—the UN’s position—is very threatening to the economic growth of these countries. After all, they say, badly paraphrasing Gandhi, that not every country can be a Britain, with an entire India to plunder and exploit. They have to create their economic growth from within, using what they regard as their own strengths—which often means their underage workforce.
At the heart of it, however, I cannot find fault in the UN convention. I’ll continue to feel guilty until my shoes are scuffed again. Then perhaps I’ll forget a bit, in the same way that I can deny the source of my prosperity when I’m back at home and can no longer see the polish blackened hands of the shoeshine boy. But a part of me will recognise that for too much of my life I live in the wrong half of another quote from Gandhi: “Earth has enough to satisfy the need of all the people, but not for satisfying the greed of some”.
Later that evening in the same square the band set up and began to play. Lovers kissed and middle class families walked with their children, pausing sometimes to allow another child to clean their shoes.