“Telenor cracks down on Myanmar suppliers to weed out child labour” was a headline in the Financial Times 20 August 2014. Many international companies have run into reputational problems over this issue, some maybe deservedly, others unwittingly. Monitoring long-distance supply chains across a myriad of business networks worldwide is undoubtedly fraught with difficulty. Compliance with the standards set in the most developed economies becomes a nightmare in many developing economies, but all too often multinationals and their local partners find workarounds. This is most evident in cases where outright bribery is a condition for doing business. Local intermediaries are easily arranged to launder money in ways that are deniable at head office. Deniability has many precedents, having always been the sine qua non of political leaders. The following memorable exchange took place in the UK in 1986 when Sir Robert Armstrong, UK Cabinet Secretary, was cross-questioned over apparently misleading statements made to a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry:
Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie? Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth. Lawyer: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth? Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth”.
Back to Telenor. No-one has accused Telenor of untruths. On the contrary it would appear the company is taking serious steps to address a genuine problem of child labour. But how does it appear from Myanmar’s viewpoint? Without having knowledge of the specific circumstances, let us assume for the sake of the argument that the children were being employed in work that was no more dangerous than work done by adults in the same supply-chain. That, of course, may be dangerous enough – for example, exposure to chemicals or to asbestos in factory buildings – but that alone does not distinguish the employment of people by age. From a “Western” point of view – is there another way of saying “Western” when the “West” includes many non-Western countries? – these kids should be gaining an education at school. From Myanmar’s point of view that may not be an available option. From a “Western” point of view, it should be, but the reality differs.
It is certainly not beyond reason to argue that, however poor a country is, education and laws to protect children can and should be a national priority. It is also not beyond reason to assume that for many families child labour makes the difference between eating regularly and hunger, between health and disease. By doing the right thing by “Western” standards are Telenor and others doing the right thing for poor families in Myanmar? The “Yes” answer assumes that pressure from foreign investors will force governments to reform. The “No” answer regards this supposition with scepticism, not least because global investment is coming from a plethora of different sources. So what could be the “right thing”? Maybe multinationals could think out of the box and incorporate education programmes – and recreational activities – in their youth employment? If they can spend millions of dollars on the World Cup and other big ticket events, then adding a few cents to the unit costs of production should be affordable… and rather more effective in enhancing their reputations as partners in development.