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Multinationals champion child rights

Child labour has only recently been recognised by Swazis as a detriment to society, and to children in particular. Foreign-owned companies that refused to hire underage workers were partly responsible for alerting many Swazis to the undesirability of such labour.
James Hall

A small economy like Swaziland s, with its population of less than a million people, depends on foreign investors largely from multinational companies to bring the technology and skill training resources hard to generate locally. But while Swazis dream of owning their own industries, they can credit multinationals for enhancing not only the national economy, but also aspects of daily life, including new privileges and rights for children.

Multinationals bring with them international standards, such as safety practices, labour relations and other social matters that are the norm in the developed world, Musa Hlope, secretary general for the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says.

Environmentalism is also practiced by multinationals, who realise they must play by the same rules here as they do in their home nations. The lives of children have also benefited from the presence of large, sophisticated corporations, Hlope said.

Until recently, it was hard for schools in rural areas to fill their classrooms. The teachers would go around the countryside, and the headmen of the traditional households, where there was usually a polygamous arrangement, would ask them, What will you pay me to give you my children so you can earn money teaching them? I need my children here, to help at the farm, recalled Phineas Magagula, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

However, when factories appeared in the kingdom in the 1970s as part of a post-Independence push to create a local manufacturing sector, parents who brought their children to the new companies and offered their offspring as inexpensive labourers were told that the children should be in school.

Actually, there were no laws then forbidding child labour. But the idea was put into people s heads that child labour was undesirable, and child education was desirable. This made it easier for Swazis to sign the United Nations Declaration on Child Rights in the 1990s, which paved the way for labour legislation regulating underage workers, said labour lawyer Charles Mndzebele.

Multinationals make up most of Swaziland s industrial and services sectors. Six out of seven local banks are foreign-owned, and such household names in the developed world like Coca-Cola, Cadbury Sweets and Macmillan Publishing are among the country s top employers.

These multinationals apply corporate policies created at home offices and applied to all branch businesses throughout the world. These policies conform to developed world standards. They feel workers should be grateful for their jobs, and not make a fuss.

Multinationals corporate policies usually show a more sophisticated social enlightenment that makes them appear to almost be healthy and social NGOs as much as businesses. When it comes to children, multinationals have spearheaded awareness of the plight of AIDS orphans in Swaziland.

Many of our workers have already died of AIDS, and the amount of absenteeism we are seeing shows more fatalities are coming. This has left a lot of orphaned children. We are moving resources and donations to social institutions that address their needs, said John Minnow, a human resources manager for a trucking company at the Matsapha Industrial Estate.

Matsapha is where most of Swaziland s manufacturing is centered, on the outskirts of the commercial town Manzini. Corporate officials do not publicise their work with children, but a survey of company efforts show more than philanthropy is at work. Companies are targeting issues that assist children with funds, which draw attention to these needs.

A case in point is the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA). Founded nine years ago, the NGO offers counseling, medical and legal assistance, and safe haven for victims of abuse. Increasingly, abuse survivors are children, who have been subjected to rape and even incest.

We are making great headway in drawing the nation s attention to the crisis of abuse in Swaziland, Nonhlanhla Dlamini, SWAGAA s secretary general, told AFRICANEWS. But we couldn t do it without the multinationals. They provide financial support for our programmes. They also lend us expertise in public relations, and give us other administrative assistance.

The Congress of Swaziland Non-governmental Organisations (CANGO) works closely with the multinational corporations in the country to secure funding for child-oriented projects. Currently, orphanages and shelters for street children are at the top of its agenda. Only a handful of orphanages operated in Swaziland before the advent of AIDS.

Now the small kingdom has the world s second highest HIV-infection rate, with nearly 40 per cent of the adult population infected with the virus. By 2010, one-sixth of all Swazis will be orphans under the age of 15 who have lost both parents to AIDS, according to the United Nations children s fund (UNICEF).

Some multinationals are promoting child welfare among their own employees. We see ourselves as a family, and so we are concerned about the families of our employees, said Phindile Weatherson, human resources manager for the Swaziland branch of the Johannesburg-based multinational Standard Bank. Currently, our anti-AIDS campaign brings children into the equation by raising awareness of our employees that they must preserve their health for the sake of their offspring, she said.

Social welfare workers do not distinguish between child welfare and child rights, because the two concepts are interlinked. But by raising awareness of child welfare issues, multinationals have helped ensure acceptance of the concept of child rights. Swaziland is a traditional society, and even now conservative men argue that children have no rights, said Manzini lawyer Fikile Mthembu.

But attitudes will likely change under the influence of the law. A new draft constitution ensures child rights along with other basic freedoms to be enjoyed by Swazis. The modern concept of child rights is invasive, like the multinational companies themselves. But no one can seriously argue that the concept is not good for the welfare of Swazi children. The multinationals influence has paved the way for such Western concepts to become social norms here, said Mthembu.

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