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A fair price to pay to lift third world children out of poverty

We are bang in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight, when the keywords are sustainability, fair deals and aid for the developing world.

Charities like Oxfam are promoting the idea that we should buy more Fair-trade products and produce.

These are artefacts, tea or coffee which have been produced by artisans and farmers in Third World countries but who are getting paid a slightly better pittance than they normally would be under the jungle laws of unfettered commerce.

I am not being dismissive of the Fairtrade initiative when I say that it just gives producers a better pittance. Even being paid slightly more for their products can make a big difference to people who are paid so little normally. As well, the Fairtrade programme helps improve the lot of women working in areas like tea plantations in India or children of these low paid workers who can avail of new educational initiatives started through the programme.

These are significant improvements in the lives of thousands of people and the good thing is that we can all help just by paying a little more for our tea or coffee or the clothing or ornaments imported from developing countries and bearing the Fairtrade mark.

It is not charity but ethical business — something that we have forgotten about in the supposedly developed world.

Ironically right in the middle of this Fairtrade fortnight we hear that one of the shiniest consumer stars, Apple, has had to admit that children were employed at some of the factories, based mainly in the Far East, where its must-have iPods, computers and mobile phones are built. Admittedly the number of children involved — 11 fifteen-year-olds — was small and the problem has been sorted, but it was an embarrassing episode for a company which has always prided itself as less of a corporate monster than its great rival, Microsoft.

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Unicef estimates that 158m children, aged five to 14, are engaged in child labour throughout the world, employed in mines or working with chemicals and pesticides or using dangerous machinery in factories.

The total represents one in six children in the world and there is no doubt that some of those children are employed in factories making some of the goods we import from developing countries. The retailers’ concern is not who makes the goods, but how little they make them for. The profit margin is God.

I am not suggesting that western companies are deliberately seeking out manufacturers who employ children — far from it — but it would be niaive to think that every factory in every country is inspected every week to ensure it complies with what we regard as fair employment practices.

That is what makes the Fair-trade initiative unique and different from the reaction to child labour employment. It is an initiative which seeks to improve the lot of producers — making goods a little more expensive —because that is the right thing to do, not because some malpractice has been discovered and should be put right to save face or corporate identity.