Cheap Labour = Child Labour (Part 2)

by Dr Rohail Ahmad

In Part 1 Rohail Ahmad presented the findings of his research into child labour. Here, in Part 2, using annotated excerpts of his novel, Pure Mafia, a literary thriller about child labour, Rohail shows us another side of his research, inviting us to think about the place of fiction in research and activism.

A synopsis of Pure Mafia

London, 2010. Imran Sheikh, 45, is in the throws of a midlife crisis. The children have left home, leaving Imran and his wife to a lonely and increasingly separate existence. To cap it all Imran has lost his job in the recession and ends up having to work for his in-laws. A beautiful young executive assistant, Catherine Haq, 28, who is of English and Pakistani heritage, hints that she suspects that the company is using child labour in its factory in Pakistan. Imran goes to Pakistan to investigate and is horrified to find that Catherine is right. Their shared opposition to child labour bring them closer and the possibility of a romantic relationship opens up. Imran’s attempts to improve working conditions in the factory bring him up against the “carpet mafia”. He is warned that his efforts will distort and unbalance the market and is threatened with violence if he refuses to comply. Meanwhile, his family life is falling apart. Can he hold his personal life together and help the child labourers in Pakistan at the same time? And is he using his position to abuse Catherine, or does she have her own agenda?

Pure Mafia and Western-South-Asian literature

Pure Mafia can be described as a “globalisation novel.” In terms of Western-South-Asian literature, other similar works might include Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger (2008), Mohsin Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (2013) and Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2011). These novels describe the effects of globalisation and of poverty in India and Pakistan. However, they do not show the on-going East/West chains of inequality and collusion, more subtle and hidden now because they are based on unfair trade policies rather than force alone. In fact, White Tiger specifically makes the point that it no longer sees “The West” as a relevant and pivotal entity in these relationships. In such a conceptual schema “The West” is not so much a geographical location as a geo-economic signifier: “Western” is an appropriating force that stands for economic independence. This can be seen in historian Niall Ferguson’s question (I am paraphrasing): “Are certain parts of South America Eastern or Western?” His implication, typically symptomatic of his rather inconsistent philosophy of the world, is that if certain regions become successful they will be Western, otherwise they will be Eastern: heads I win, tails you lose.

Filthy Rich is a typically original and quirky novel, as one would expect from its author. Perhaps its main flaw lies in the title, which implies that it is indeed possible to get filthy rich in Asia, and that Asia is indeed rising. This is not true, in my view. The vast majority of people in both Pakistan and India will continue to live in abject poverty for many generations to come, as long as cheap labour is disingenuously presented as their comparative advantage. Alice Bhatti, a dark, if not pessimistic novel, is much more reflective of the reality of Pakistan than Filthy Rich.

These novels can also be described more specifically as “postmillennial fiction”, as can Pure Mafia. They tackle twenty-first century themes like 9/11, the banking crash and increasing globalisation and migration. Even more specifically, Pure Mafia can be described as a “world-systems novel”, which the others cannot; this is defined by Dr Sharae Deckard of University College Dublin as one “whose temporal, spatial shuttling between countries consciously exposes the radical unevenness of conditions between core and periphery”. World-Systems Theory is a theory of international relations, promulgated most notably by Immanuel Wallerstein and describes how rich countries (the “core”) exploit poor countries (the “periphery”).

The name Pure Mafia is intended to be ironic and oxymoronic. The word “pure” is a recurring motif in the book: among other things, it refers to the “Land of the Pure” (Pakistan); it also refers to the import/export company in the novel, which is called Pure Rugs Ltd, again ironic because of the fact that it is using child labour. “Pure” also refers to the fact that big businesses and even governments, including Western ones, which on the surface are portrayed as “good”,  are often collusive with corruption and exploitation.

In Pure Mafia, I have tried to depict the continuation of East/West links of force and cooption. I cannot pretend that it is a rosy view of the world, but I hope that there is also some vision of hope and redemption within it.

Excerpts from Pure Mafia

The following annotated excerpts are from “Part 2a: Sweatshops”. Click here to read the full extract.

[In this excerpt Imran, the protagonist, visits his in-laws’ carpet factory in Pakistan.]

The factory was not as bad as I had feared; I had been doing some research on the Internet and had read all the horror stories. It was reasonably clean and well lit; there were no children, but there were many empty workstations, reminding me of Catherine’s comment. It was roughly a hundred feet by fifty, with a high ceiling; there were about a hundred workers. I had expected the deafening sounds of automated looms but realised that this was a hangover from a visit to a cotton-making factory I had once made long ago; here the only sounds were muted ones from the hand-woven carpet-making process and the occasional bits of chatter. There was a slightly musky smell. [Click here to read the full extract.]

[On Imran’s first visit, the children have been hidden, a common practice in real life. In this excerpt, he returns to the factory unexpectedly and discovers the children.]

Sharif came running out of his small cabin-office on seeing my car pull up the next morning and tried to stop me from going into the factory. I ignored him and brushed past.

He grovelled, attempted to explain.

‘They are families, sir. They beg us for jobs. We are doing them a favour. I will take you to the brick kilns, sir.’

‘How much do we pay them?’ I asked, referring to the children.

‘Sir, we pay per rug.’

I remembered that fact from Uncle but had wanted to compare stories. ‘But what formula do you use?’

The word “formula” took a while to explain. After a laborious conversation, it seemed to me that, bearing in mind that families were employed, the children’s rate was about half that of the adults’, and that even the adult rate was less than the minimum wage. [Click here to read the full extract.]

[In this excerpt, Imran decides to see for himself how the child labourers live.]

Later that day, at the end of the shift, I asked Javed where he lived. He looked at me blankly for a while and then raised his arm and pointed vaguely.

‘Please take me. I want to see where you live.’

Outside the factory I made to go to the car but the boy held back. I realised that he did not want to get in the car. I nodded and said I would follow him and beckoned to Sharif to bring the car. The boy led me down the main road for about half an hour before turning off into a field. It was a small shanty encampment of perhaps a hundred dwellings; I had smelled it first before I saw it. It was quiet with no music playing. He led me down narrow alleyways until he turned into one of the huts. Inside, it was dark and gloomy. There was no electricity and no lights except for a small oil lamp hung up on a string. It took me a while to get used to the gloom. Only then did I see that there was a young girl in the room, lying silent in the corner. [Click here to read the full extract.]

[This excerpt continues on from the previous one. Here, I use the technique of a story within a story to illustrate the ongoing East/West relations of force and collusion. The whole novel attempts this, of course, but this extract can be seen as a rich microcosm. The embedded story itself is presented in the form of a fable: the mice represent the child labourers, and the rat the international companies.]

After dinner, the two boys turned to the girl and said, ‘Tell us a story.’

She sat them down, stood in front of them and started her story, with full action and mime, with emphasis and rhythm. The lamp created silhouettes of her on the wall, like an Indonesian shadow play. With the children quiet in listening, I could hear the sounds of movement and talk from the other dwellings, including the wailing of a baby.

‘Ek dafa, ek chooah or ek choohi theyh; woh ban bai the. Once upon a time there was a little boy mouse and a little girl mouse. They were brother and sister. They were very poor. One day a rat came to their nest and said to their parents, “I will take your children and give them a job. They will become rich and all your worries will be over.”[Click here to read the full extract.]

[In this final excerpt, Imran reaches a mid-novel epiphany as he realises how he has become part of the international system of exploitation. It should be noted that the company belongs to his in-laws, i.e. Westerners of Pakistani origin. This illustrates how East/West exploitation is now being achieved by perpetuation rather than instigation, as was the case with colonial slavery and colonialism. Later on in the novel, partly as a result of this epiphany, Imran decides to do something about the child labour. But this brings him up against the “carpet mafia” – a real organisation, the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association.]

And the next day, as I boarded my plane, I reflected that ten days in this sweatshop of a country had been more than enough for me. I tried hard not to think of Javed and Arif listening to Farina’s stories in their little hut, all of whom would have to spend their whole lives here making miraculously cheap goods.

Miraculous because they were made by magic of course, not by real people, and certainly not by children.

And not real people, because they were Eastern.

They were cheap.

They were over there.

Out of sight and out of mind.

But I’m all right, Jack, I’ve got that other piece of red magic: my European Union passport.

I’m Western now.

I’m Englaand now.

The only present I was taking back was this cancer in my brain – the memory of Farina and her baby – which refused to budge, no matter how hard I rolled-shook my head in the Pakistani style I had begun to imitate, even though I had only been here ten days. [Click here to read the full extract.]

Click here to read a fully referenced version of my research, Cheap Labour = Child Labour.

Click here to read a full version of my commentary on my novel, Pure Mafia.

Click here to read “Part 2a: Sweatshops”  of my novel, Pure Mafia.

Dr Rohail Ahmad has a PhD (2013) and an MA (2010, Distinction) in Creative Writing from Brunel University, where he also teaches. His MA novella, The Dancing Girl of Lahore, jointly won the Curtis Brown Prize at Brunel and was also longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize. One of his MA stories was shortlisted for an anthology of British-Asian fiction by Tindal Street Press (Too Asian, Not Asian Enough). Excerpts of his PhD work have been published on the MD website, as well as other places. His PhD novel, Pure Mafia, is a unique literary thriller about child labour and the Pakistani “carpet mafia”; it was described by the supervisor as “complex and ambitious, East and West”, and by the examiners as “enjoyable, provocative, original and fluent”. His PhD thesis was about globalisation, focusing on cheap/child labour.
Twitter @HaveYou_Read_It  Find out more at Have You Read It

 

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2 replies

  1. This is a brilliant piece highlighting the important role that fiction can play in geo-political discourse. These days I really don’t read enough fiction, but I’ll be changing that. The last fictional book I read was The Kite Runner a few years ago. It was a gift – as I wouldn’t have bothered to read/buy it otherwise – but it really was an amazing, immersive read and a real eye opener. I’ll be adding the books you’ve cited to my reading wish list.

    The following point you make is of vital importance

    “The vast majority of people in both Pakistan and India will continue to live in abject poverty for many generations to come, as long as cheap labour is disingenuously presented as their comparative advantage”

    This is the true nature of capitalism. Even in the West, the idea of selling off state-owned security, health and education institutions is presented as advantageous. Until the people of the developing world are organised enough to take their own destinies (and resources) into their own hands, the cycle of exploitation will sadly continue.

    These two articles have been a really informative read.

    Like

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