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The ABC of Practical Economics...

A Management Consultant working in under-developed countries walks the agonising tightrope of accepting local norms and values, versus resenting obscenely unfair wealth distribution....

Long ago in the Late Bronze Age of my career, when I was nurturing an infant EAP (Employee Assistance Program) in the UK, a man I came to respect greatly said “why should the EAP stop at the factory gates?” I was too young to understand what the great man was saying – let’s not be shy, it was Paul Heck of DuPont, engaged at the time in setting up factories and workplaces in China, India, South Korea among others. Later I was in Ghana and was appalled at the sight of primary school age children walking along the country roads, mile after mile, carrying jugs and pans of water on their heads to fill the family’s cistern for the day. It had been the same for them yesterday and unless the sky fell in it would be the same again tomorrow. School age or not they obviously weren’t going to school. “What a waste of Ghana’s young people – their future human capital”, I thought.

All this was just part of my delayed education in the very basics of economics – practical economics rather than the theoretical economics that are (putting it kindly) currently under scrutiny. Economics in your face, so to speak. 

Later still I was in Sri Lanka and did the tourist thing at a tea factory, meeting a group of tea pickers, uniquely women because of their manual dexterity, who had spent that day from 5 in the morning bent over to pick the delicate tips (think PG Tips) from the centre of the tea plants, and would be doing the same the next day, and the next. As they had done the previous day, and the day before. In the factory there was one particular room where one brand of tea was being baked by about a dozen women – wizened, tiny as though shrunk – moving around like so many worker bees. I wondered afterwards at the thought that they might not actually be as old as they looked, not if they had been working in steady 106 degree heat for several years, as they had.

This isn't specifically a plea for Women’s Lib, though unsurprisingly a hefty majority of the world’s worker bees are women.

The BBC weighed in on my side a while back with an inside track into what it’s really like to be a sex worker in one of Johannesburg’s 10, 000 brothels (and bring up your children there). I’m not changing the subject, let’s pause for a moment to let it sink in... take a deep breath – one city, 10,000 brothels. If you don’t like such a topic we could switch attention to what it’s really like to work in a Philippines sweat factory mounting mother boards, to be a worker in Malawi’s tobacco plantations at age 10 and get your lungs coated with nicotine, or to be a gold panner in – it doesn’t matter where. Perhaps it doesn't matter at all.

There's only a certain amount you can spend out of £160,000 week after week, isn't there?

During the last World Cup a group of WAGS visited a Cape Flats township, and I take my hat off to the one who said: “my boyfriend will be here soon for the World Cup. I hope he sees what I’ve seen. He’s on £160,000 a week. One week’s wages would change a bunch of people’s lives here! And there’s only a certain amount you can spend out of £160,000 week after week, isn't there?” That’s practical economics. I wish that woman would stand for Parliament, I’d vote for her, never mind which Party. (This is several years ago. The said player is now earning far more than £160,000 a week.)

Where am I headed with all this? Boosting Kleenex sales? No. Delivering a sermon on Human Capital? No. Sermons don't work. I know. I’ve listened to too many myself. Preached them too.

What about Conclusions?

Conclusions then?

The first is that a lot of these slaves (we may as well use the correct term) are happy. Happier than you and me? Possibly and, if not happy-happy, satisfied enough. I mean happy-glad to have a job, in many cases first of all for their self-esteem, for that sense of having a defined place in their world, and any job because they have kids to feed, elders back home to whom they send money. It’s not important that the job is hard, boring, demeaning. If you have an infant and the only place you can get enough to feed him is in a brothel then that's what you do.

Second, I’d say to Paul Heck that in a way, simply offering work opportunities to remote communities throughout Asia is already taking the EAP beyond the factory gates. And to be fair I would have to hand it to Unilever who opened a palm oil factory in up country Ghana, offering employment to 2000 people who otherwise would have had no income and nothing to do but transfer water, a jug at a time, from a well to the family cistern every day.

Third, I’m in a quandary: should I give up tea and coffee now that I’ve seen what it takes in human endeavour/misery, slave labour and thousands of years (they add up) of dreary existences to produce it? But that would only mean closing down an income stream that, however meagre, enables some of those slave families to survive. Answers on a postcard please.








Liveryman Michael Reddy