A Brief Overview of the Global Criminal Economy – an Essay

(taken from an essay I wrote my senior year, in 2005)

With a focus on Child Labor from the Family Perspective,
specifically in Southeast Asia

Global criminal economy includes drug trafficking, weapons and nuclear trafficking, trafficking human organs, smuggling of illegal immigrants, money laundering, trafficking women and children, prostitution, slavery, child adoption, and various ethnic mafias. According to Manuel Castells, “In the past two decades, criminal organizations have increasingly set up their operations transnationally, taking advantage of economic globalization and new communication and transportation technologies” (Castells 1998, 168). The economic bottom line in all of these criminal activities is as simple as the fact that “demand drives supply” (Castells, 174). Globalization has definitely contributed and certainly fueled the success and growth of crime because it has increased the flexibility, resourcefulness and adaptability of the various criminal organizations, mafias and such. Castells explains that “It is this combination of flexible networking between local turfs, rooted in tradition and identity, in a favorable institutional environment, and the global reach provided by strategic alliances, that explains the organizational strength of global crime” (Castells, 180).

There is a great deal of greed and desperation that leads individuals to become involved in this criminal economy and it is fueled by globalization. Militarization after the Second World War and the Vietnam War and Korean War appears to have contributed to the demand for so called hospitality services. The famous rest and relaxation (R&R) that G.I.’s go on as a break is part of what has created the demand resulting in a need for enormous numbers of supply: women who are often enslaved into prostitution. Tourism is also a contributor to the demand for prostitution. Countries where women are affected the most include Nepal, Thailand, and the Netherlands. Thailand not only receives women and girls from other locations such as Burma, but also sends women to other locations around the world. Women are promised legitimate work and then upon arriving at their destination are stripped of their passport or other documents and their rights. These women are then forced to work long hours without breaks or days off (Blitt 1995, Video).

Child labor, prostitution, sweatshops, and a new form slavery are all results of poverty and desperation. The fact is that the poor are vulnerable and those in the criminal business know who to target. “The important thing to remember [about slavery] is that people are enslaved by violence and held against their wills for exploitation (Bales 1999, 20). They are exploited because their hard work lowers costs for manufacturing and these so called savings eventually reach our stores. It is most likely that slave-produced goods and goods assembled from slave-made components have the effect of increasing profits rather than just lowering consumer prices, as they are mixed into the flow of other products. I have a newfound awareness that the things I purchase can affect the demand for supply creating a continuum that cannot end. I hope to continue learning what steps or what actions to take to help stop the suffering. One of the most important things we can do is to educate our friends and family about poverty and exploitation of labor. “The only proven cure for over population is to eliminate extremes of poverty. The best contraceptives in the world–education and social protection against poverty in old age and illness are also the best guard against enslavement” (Bales, 234). A long-term solution to poverty will be discussed later.

Child labor occurs when a family needs an additional income source. This short-term need is highlighted by the fact that the family is extremely poor. Sometimes children will be sent away from the family to live elsewhere to earn an income and this can lead to slavery. They are forced to work long hours without breaks and little food in uncomfortable situations and working environments. Agriculture is an enormous income source for the majority of third world countries. Children working in agriculture may spend the entire day in the heat doing backbreaking work. They get hardly any rest or sleep before they have to start all over again. There are certain hazards that exist in agriculture and the younger the child is the more likely they will be hurt or injured.

A Fine Line: Child Labor and Little Helpers

There can be a fine line between forced, exploited labor and children helping their parents.  I am not denying the existence of harmful and cruel child labor. I merely wish to point out the family’s perspective. Some of the work hazards are simply rural hazards that they have to be wary of. I cannot count how many machete injuries we heard about. Ten-year olds will use the machete and cut open a coconut and whack their thumb. In rural villages a significant amount of the primary income comes from agriculture, as it is in many other countries. The primary sources of income are in various crops appropriate to the area and climate.  Some crops such as rice, corn, fruits, vegetables, and spices are grown by individual families not as a cash crop but simply as a source of food. Families will also share with other families. Agriculture is physically demanding and there are physical dangers to the work. A lot of the cash crops such as dried coconut, are sold by weight. Machetes are a hazard for children and adults alike. I knew many people who had near misses or digits missing because of a machete accident. Any injury is prone to infection, which is also a serious problem in the tropics and rural village areas.

There are many factors to consider why the family needs the children to work. The size and the needs of the family as well as the level of income are also important. A poor family with many children will have a very hard time paying for the all of the children to attend school. Public school costs include: uniforms, books, shoes, tuition, and fees.

Parents should maintain the authority to make decisions that are best for their family. I would like to take a different perspective and look at it from the family’s point of view, rather than the outsider. In this instance globalization has not had a large influence on whether children work or go to school. Their rural social system has been in place for many generations, and globalization has not affected it since the last time I was in a specific area in Southeast Asia. One advantage has been the addition of new schools and the addition of higher levels of education, including high schools that are located closer to the villages, allowing more children to complete their education. One of the only affects of globalization is that of entertainment by way of television. Bhagwati clearly states “…economic argumentation and the empirical evidence do not lend support to the feared adverse link between child labor and globalization in the shape of trade” (Bhagwati, 71).

Firsthand Experience*

I lived in two different villages from the age of 5 to the age of 10, and again when I was 15, on an island in the Pacific. All of my native friends had chores that they needed to do around the house and for their parents, just as I did. Some of the tasks included sweeping, doing the dishes, getting water from the well, helping with a meal and helping the parents in their garden or field. Occasionally our neighbor’s parents left their home; the mother going to their garden in the jungle and the father simply gone. As a result the oldest child would have to stay home from school and take care of her younger brother or sister. This was a familiar occurrence and it was simply practical. In our area it was not common for children to attend junior high or high school; most only completing their elementary education thru sixth grade, in part because there was no higher education located nearby. A handful did attend junior high and even fewer attended high school but both had to make the long 15-kilometer journey everyday, or leave home and move into town with a relative.

We had two maids at a time when we lived in a town which was about a three hour drive south from the village, and this allowed one of the girls to go to school in the morning and the other to go to school in the afternoon and early evening. We paid for their schooling and uniforms plus additional salary and room and board and they worked as our house helpers or maids. Part of their salary may have gone to their families back in the village. I can think of four reasons for having these two girls work for us were: mom needed help around the house so she could home-school me, take care of my baby sister and help my dad with their translation work, and so we could help further the education of those who might otherwise not have to opportunity to do so. Most of the other families and some expatriate families in our region did likewise. We had helpers from the age of 5 ‘til I was 10 years old and I looked up to them as my big sisters, and they were between 15 and 17 years old. After they completed High School we would hire two new girls.

It should be determined if their labor is preventing them from attending school or the ability to do their best when they are in school. My understanding of the children who I knew that were working were simply children who were helping their parents and doing basic household chores, and most of the time it did not affect their education.
*I cannot describe where I lived. It is intentionally vague for safety reasons.


Long-Term Solutions?

I have been struggling and wrestling with whether the long term benefits outweigh the costs of meeting the short term needs of the families. If the family has no food to eat they will need as many sources of income as they can, and if the children starve the long-term benefits are irrelevant because the basic short term needs have not been met. Without assistance, the family cannot afford to live without their child’s income. This endless cycle requires a solution that helps with short term needs and long term needs.

“Educated children are more productive later in life” (Madslien 2004). This statement can be backed up by this estimate that: “…For every year of school a child has up to the age of 14 produces and additional 11% benefit of annual future earnings” (ILO estimates). In order for this to happen governments need to work with parents and help make going to school a little easier, by compensating them. Countries such as India, Brazil and Mexico are operating government compensation programs that encourage children to go to school rather than work by providing compensation to replace the income that each child had been earning. Three things should be considered in providing compensation, “Average value of the child’s work, the number of children per household, [and] the degree of household poverty” (Madslien). These three factors should assist the government in providing decent compensation for poor families, who otherwise would not be able to send their children to school because of their short-term needs. The desire of this type of government program is the hope that in about 15 years there would be significant income brought in by the then adults who are today’s children. The estimated figures provided show that “African countries would gain around $5 for every $1 invested, while Asian countries would get back more than $7 for every $1″ (Madslien). This potential economic growth could help individual families as well as their respective countries.

Broken: Now What?

My heart breaks as I read each story and become aware of the pain and suffering that exists around the world. I know that God’s heart breaks even more for every single child. What action can I take to help get rid of slavery, and child labor? My worldview has shifted in the last four years as I have sought to claim my own views and ideas not just those of my parents. These past four months have provided a heavy concentration of some views and ideas than ever before. My next question then is what do I do with this new worldview? Where do I find the answers? James provides a great answer. “Faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17, NIV). This idea that faith without works is dead has always made sense to me. It expresses what Jesus lived out in his activities while on earth. His compassion was for the poor and those who were lesser and weaker. While not a prerequisite for salvation, if we are to live as Christ-followers how can we live and not help those with their practical needs?

Our faith should prompt us to do things and be aware of the social issues around us and around our globe. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” This is a powerful statement that expresses one of the problems with the religion aspect of Christianity. One of the problems with the mindsets of a large number of Christians today is their belief that once they have their ticket to heaven, their journey is done; they simply rejoice for their decision and pray for others. On the contrary, once you make your decision to live for Christ you should be prepared for a lifelong adventure not only in this life but also beyond (Campolo & McLaren 2003, 19-29).

Part of the adventure should include an awareness of social issues and the poor. And more than just awareness we should be open to be challenged and willing to do something about it; to take action in Jesus’ name.

Works Referenced:
Bales, Kevin. 1999. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blitt, Chela. 1995. Sisters and Daughters Betrayed. Produced and directed by Chela Blitt.
20 min. University of California. Berkeley: CA. Videocassette. Viewed March 29, 2005.

Campolo, Tony, and Brian D. McLaren. 2003. Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Castells, Manuel. 1998, 2000. End of the Millenium. The Perverse Connection: The Global Criminal Economy. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Madslien, Jorn. February 4, 2004. ILO: Child Labour Prevents Development. BBC News Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3451117.stm/


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