How is our society dealing with poverty?


Even in today’s developed world, many people are no strangers to poverty. Even if we have not experienced poverty ourselves, we likely know of at least one group of people who are or have been poor. Poverty is around every corner, in every society, and still some people are blind to its existence. 

What is the extent to which people are suffering from poverty in the current world? Well, not much, in the developed world. While there are certainly people who are homeless, living on the streets and working the skin off their backs for food every day, the majority of people in developed countries live comfortable lives and occasionally give some coins to these less fortunate people. At the very least, they have clean air to breathe and a place to rest – a far cry from the many workers of places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children as young as seven work tirelessly each day to mine less than a dollar’s worth of cobalt. The proportion of people living in humane quarters decreases drastically when it comes to these developing countries. Cobalt is a very valuable commodity without which our mobile devices, computers, electric cars and jet engines would fail to function. The Democratic Republic of Congo boasts a cobalt belt where more than half of the world’s cobalt comes from, with a very high possibility that more than 40,000 children work in southern Congo alone, inhaling toxic air while they stand hunched in cramped tunnels, mining cobalt for roughly $0.65 a day. In places where the cobalt is purer, wages may go up to nearly $2 a day, but it is likely that the workers do not get to keep it all and instead pay some to the government officials overseeing their work. Furthermore, working in the cobalt mines can well be a death sentence. If the workers do not suffer from breathing difficulties after some time, they could be trapped or buried alive if the tunnels suddenly cave in. For these orphans, however, there is no other choice to put food on the table aside from working in the mines, where they can earn a measly living. 

Another issue concerning exploitation of the poor occurs in Turkey, which produces 75 percent of the world’s hazelnuts. Of this amount, the confectionary giant Ferrero buys one-third for its hazelnut spread Nutella. Turkey has approximately 400,000 family-owned hazelnut farms, where workers are paid around $13 per day and child labor is also accepted, with most of the farmers not verifying the ages of their workers. The country has attempted to crack down on child labor happening in the hazelnut farms by fining farmers who allow child labor, but a report by Support to Life in 2014 found that around 50 percent of agriculture workers younger than 18 had already dropped out of school. They work eight to nine hours in the fields each day, where they are less effective than adults at picking hazelnuts but are able to earn some money all the same. Aside from young children, older teenagers 15-17 years old are working the same hours as adults and perform the same arduous and dangerous tasks, such as carrying up to 170 pounds (80 kilograms) of hazelnuts at one time. It is estimated that in Turkey, 893,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 work in the agricultural sector, of which those between 14 to 16 number nearly 300,000. However, some farmers are finding the new measures discouraging child labor helpful, as a child’s work is usually inferior to an adult’s and not worth paying a full day’s wages. 

The high occurrence of child labor in such developing countries can only point to the state of poverty these families are going through. Poverty is often the main reason why children are put to work, sometimes voluntarily so, because the family needs every extra pair of hands to scrape together more funds. Programs have been put in place to encourage children to remain in school until they are of legal age, but many families still find loopholes around the system to send their children to work so that the whole family has enough to live on. 

Despite the blatant child labor and exploitation of poverty in these countries, manufacturing giants fail to acknowledge their part in the process. For instance, Apple assures consumers that its products are free of child labor yet continues to buy from these cobalt suppliers. Ferrero has likewise been challenged by the Australian supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles but has stated that it is “impossible” to monitor the entire production chain for human exploitation. As such, the company typically does not ask traders where the hazelnuts were obtained from. They maintain that they have established their social practice requirements, but that anything happening in the lower levels of the supply chain is out of their control. 

Opinions are split on whether this issue should continue as it is, or if the manufacturers should take more action. Some would agree that the manufacturers cannot be blamed for a lack of inquiry where it can be difficult to fully trace one’s sources. Besides, it would be difficult to obtain a source of materials where the workers are paid enough without being put into harsh conditions, considering that the reason why these developing countries are producing most of the world’s raw materials is because of the poor conditions people are working in. On the other hand, others would argue that it is still a manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that their products contain no exploitation of poverty at all, no matter how many supply chains separate them from the production of raw materials. After all, we usually pay thousands of times a worker’s wages when we purchase products, yet all this money has evaporated away when it finally reaches the lowest level of supply chains – where the people there need it the most. 

On the bright side, measures have been taken to reduce poverty and decrease the disparity between the lower and upper classes in society. However, the unfortunate truth is that as individuals, we more often than not tend to ignore those in need. After all, what could we do to help these people, aside from tossing some money their way or avoiding products that may contain traces of human exploitation? Even if we attempted to funnel all of our resources into helping to eradicate poverty, there are simply too many mouths to feed in the whole world. We could try to save those we can, but would we then be plagued by the guilt of being unable to help the rest? Would it not be easier to simply resign ourselves to the fact that we are unable to save everyone in poverty, and walk away from all of them?