Friday, 8 November 2013

Are all jobs OK ?

Are there "good" jobs and "bad" jobs ? Are some jobs inherently demeaning in nature and therefore to be banned ?  Or is the economic imperative an acceptable argument for any job where there is demand and where people do of their own free will ? Unforced prostitution is one such example. Manual scavenging is another. I find it a difficult moral dilemma, as this post on the "mule women" of Melilla will show. I came to know of this from one of the greatest of radio shows - BBC's From Our Own Correspondent. (starts from 12.25). If you prefer simply the written version rather than hearing it on the radio, it is here.

An accident of history has made two small enclaves of Spain (and therefore of the European Union) exist on the north coast of Africa. Melilla and Ceuta are located in what should be Morocco, but they are part of Spain and hence border-less with the European Union and all its goodies. The whole story arises because

a) Moroccan residents of Nador, the neighbouring province in Morocco are allowed to freely travel (but not stay) in Melilla
b) Morocco allows goods to be brought in from Melilla, duty free, as long as it is physically carried by a person - not pulled in a trolley or cart, but physically carried across the border.

Enter the "mule women" of Melilla. They are hired by Moroccan importers to cross into Melilla and then physically carry the goods across the border, thereby earning the right to be duty free. Each bale is some 60 to 80 kgs and the women can make 3 or 4 trips in a day. They are paid some 3 or 4 Euros per trip. The photo below,  courtesy of the BBC, tells its own story.

This is exploitative and tantamount to slavery - right ? Can you imagine carrying 80 kilos on your back and trudging across the border all day, and in the hot sun, like this . There is little doubt that the women are prone to injuries . If ever there was an example of back breaking work, this is it; literally. Wages are a pittance. That the workforce is almost entirely women and not men is evidence that there is exploitation, at least on wages, going on. All this due to a quirk of customs law which imposes a duty on something that is mechanically moved, but gives a duty free status if it is carried personally. The whole matter can easily be solved by a stroke of the pen - a change in the customs laws. Hey presto; exploitation of the women will stop.

But as Linda Pressly, the BBC reporter who publicised the story says, when she asked one of the women why she was putting up with exploitation, she was met with an incredulous look from her - "I have a family who must eat. I have four children and nobody to help", was the answer. If you take away their work, they will have nowhere else to go and will become destitute. Governments can give a dole or a pension, but is that better than being allowed to work ?

In my younger days, this was not a debate and the solution was clear. Nothing justifies exploitation. Any trade that exploited any vulnerable group physically or emotionally, must simply be banned. Demeaning work must be wiped off the face of the earth. Period.

Now, as I am older, and perhaps a tad wiser, it's not so clear. What do you think ?


  1. Anonymous8/11/13

    Exkalibur666: I think the key word here is rehabilitation. Obviously one cannot stop a means of livelyhood but this practise obviously needs to stop and some sort of alternative needs to be found for these less fortunate brotheren of ours.

  2. If there is a viable alternative to a livelihood, other than government dole, that should be the way. But moral/ ethical dilemmas aside, I always wonder whether leading a life of dignity is an individual's duty ( irrespective of limited choices) or that of the society/ government.

  3. I'd like to believe nothing justifies exploitation always, only being older and wiser one comes to terms with the reality where exploitation is sometimes unstoppable. Wonder why the law makers ignore this though.. May be get a bit more creative and prevent it?? And again, they will find ways.. But 80 kgs is a lot... Some action is needed indeed.
    Agree with you on the dilemma... Whats ok and whats not- there is a need on both sides and an opportunity, when hunger and survival are driving existence, morality and values take the back seat, right? Exactly what i felt while taking a tour the famous red-light dist in Amsterdam. Wish i were young once again, i might have written to an NGO who could mobilise some resources.... It is not ok to for everyone to let this go on forever- that much, I am sure. It would be a shame if one year later i have done nothing but just feel terrible about this... But that happens too. Then i feel old and useless...

  4. As I read more of such stories, I feel that all of us, the so-called educated lot with sensitive hearts and minds need to be the policy makers. Need one sane-headed driven individual to stop this and enable a creative solution where the back breaking stops, and an alternate means of livelihood is established.

    Is there a way to start a petition for this and make it go viral? Let me know, and I'll promote it as much as I can. Let's put social media to good use.

  5. @Exkalibur - But how ? It is a difficult moral argument to ask for rehabilitation for these workers, but say not for the unemployed. And who should do this - social organisations ?; governments ?

    @myfloatingthoughts - Nice to see you here back again. Your point on individual choice is an important one. Yes, individual choice - but many of these women are forced to do so by circumstances. The choice is never really "free", but I do think the choice argument is very important.

    @Indu - You are right. The ladies of De Wallen are another good example and you observe rightfully that exploitation will never be weeded out.

    @Shachi - Stopping it is counter productive Shachi - the biggest objectors to this would be the women themselves. Even an alternate livelihood is not easy to do. There are always pluses and minuses about any alternative and in other cases, the exploited simply return back to their earlier profession, because that is what they know and to some extent it is their free choice as opposed to "force" by government or social organisations

  6. @Ramesh: I learnt a key lesson - that one must leave well alone if our only motivation is our own sense of moral outrage. The world is not perfect and we must resist the urge to remake the world in our image especially when we are not part of it. Some idiot will now pass a law outlawing this loophole, and some poor women plus some petty traders on the Moroccan border will be shorn of a living - however small it is. Moral outrage is a dangerous thing and we must not succumb to it. To be sure, I am not saying we should tolerate immorality - just that we should ask a few questions and leave it alone if this benefits a few people.

  7. Let's say there were no exploitative/immoral ways in this world to earn a living, would these people go hungry? No. There is always a way. Making them inaccessible is the fault of us educated ones and not them. They in their situation will not know their options and will need help to uplift their conditions.

  8. @Ravi - Three score years ago , at WIMWI, you wouldn't have said this and if you had, I would have bashed you up.

    Now this appears a sensible remark. What have the years done to us :(

    @Deepa- Ahhh, the optimism of youth. Very likely they do not know their options; very likely if somebody shows them a way, they will thrive. But who ???????

  9. How sad:( 80 kgs on a human's back and that too to cross borders. What stamina those women must be having!Do they even eat well and the written report says many even die. That is quiet a risky job and who will provide for their kids later.

    Can't the human rights commission intervene and rehabilitate these women by training them vocationally and release them from such inhuman work?

  10. The law of unintended consequences strikes again!

    About the larger issue of various immoral things going on in the world--that we as individuals know about, and those that we don't know about because there are only so many hours in a day--and whether we should act on them, and how we should act on them ...
    I don't have a freaking clue!
    Well, I do have my own opinions on them, but my moral compass might point in a certain way, while somebody else's might work differently ... all we can do is yell and scream, while the immoral practices continue on ...

    Which is why Camus says .... (I am sure Ramesh knows why I refer to Camus .... muahahahaha!)

  11. Agree with you on the dilemma... Whats okay and whats not- there is a need on both sides and an opportunity, when hunger and survival are driving existence.
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  12. @Asha - There a5re too many like these Asha. Yes this is inhuman, but where are the alternate jobs; this is the dilemma in today's world. So the issue I wrestle with is if its OK to let these be, however morally uncomfortable it is ?

    @sriram - Can you see how Ravi, you and me, who come from a different generation, have a different view on this than our younger readers. I am not even sure what my moral compass on this is anymore - hence the trouble with this post. Yes no exploitation, but also no depriving of livelihoods. If free choice is there ........ I am really mixed up on this one.

  13. @Evie - Welcome to this space, since you have taken the trouble of commenting specifically. We could do without the Free Classified ads bit though - this is a non commercial space.

  14. @Ramesh - yes my age is showing. There are no absolutes. We should leave well alone.

  15. Hey, old man, you are from a different generation, alright. Don't include me in your cohort, yet ;)

    When younger, yes, you and I, too, would not have suggested what we have opined here. There is something to be said about the idealistic energy of the young, and the licking-the-wounds wisdom that comes with age ...
    (btw, the old and the young at this blog also correspond with the gender split???)

  16. @Sriram - Allright Allright - it is hereby announced to the wide world that the aforementioned Sriram is a young strapping lad !

    And why the surprise over the gender split. Obviously I am hugely attractive to young lovely ladies .... :)

  17. In this particular situation, law should take the blame allowing unlimted weight with personel carrying. secondly alternate job training is required before banning. its all about economical imbalance between countries creating such slavary situation.
    i remeber an old way of balance economic "pandam mattru murai"- which is all about exchanging resource. natural resources are common for all citizens but few individuals making ownership of it and creating such economical imbalance. To eradicate poor or slavary situation, this kind of ownership authority must be removed from economic model. rest else will all be an temporary solution only.

  18. @Venkat - Yes, but as you know , such involved rehabilitation rarely happens.

    Interesting idea of common ownership. The trick is to do this without resorting to the communist model which is a proven failure.

  19. venkat13/11/13

    Nice to see your approving reply. If powerfull minds like yours can influence the powefull people there is a possibility of thar rare happenings in few decade. thats the reason i comment here.

  20. The situation is heart-rending Ramesh and I sooo get ur point but agree with Deepa...if it is blocked they'll find some other way to live..human instinct is such that it will find a way to survive. And u r right, its so easy to sit in our comfortable homes and discuss this but reality is something else:-).

  21. @Reflections - Reality is tough, isn't it !


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