Oscar Wilde tells of a young king on the eve of his coronation. He dreams of the provenance of his majestic robe, and of the pearl and rubies that his scepter will bear. His robe is made by enslaved weavers. A boy dies diving for his scepter's pearl. Death harvests the miners of his rubies, because avarice would not yield him a single grain of wheat. The young king renounces the robe and jeweled scepter.
When encountered in a mellow or melancholy mood, Wilde's moment of romantic piety may reach deep inside the reader's soul. But for the common disenchanted grown-up it is simply pathetic. A children's fairy tale. Empty words.
Regardless of whether one identifies with the young king's dismay, or is alienated by the blatant attempt to bring one to tears, the reader is shielded by a certain distance. The story does not relate directly to the reader's life. The reader is unlikely to wear golden robes or bear pearl-headed and ruby-covered scepters. This protective distance, however, disappears the moment one pauses to concern oneself with the provenance of the very book upon which a message as sincere and as heartfelt as Wilde's "Young King" might be inscribed.
The National Labor Committee (NLC), a US-based organization which aims to "put a human face on the global economy" reports of the Chinese Hung Hing printing press, which prints books for, among others, Disney. How sweet and innocent is an illustrated toddlers' edition of Cinderella or Peter Pan. But here's the story which such Disney books tell between the lines:
"On the 19th of April of 2005, a worker had his back crushed by a falling machine in the course of his work. The factory management did not report the incident to the social security bureau. They simply negotiated in private with the worker, giving him a little money and sending him to return home. On the 29th of the same month, a male worker in the printing workshop suffered a work-related accident. The index, middle, ring and pinkie fingers of his left hand were crushed."
Just one paragraph in a string of some dozen case-studies of amputated fingers, broken limbs and deaths. The on-line report also mentions unpaid overtime, poor food and lodging, and lack of insurance. There is, however, something which this on-line report does not mention, but which is bound to catch the eye of any Jerusalem Post reader who would skim through. Those Hung Hing products photographed in the NLC report - Disney books about Cinderella, and Peter Pan, and The Lion King - are printed in Hebrew.
IN WILDE'S story, the young king says to the weaver: "The land is free, thou art no man's slave." The weaver answers: "We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die."
A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting with some foreign embassy staff. We (Kav LaOved) were concerned with migrant workers in Israel, who fall victim to fraud concerning migration to this country. The migrant workers pay a lot of money, and are left stranded. But it quickly became evident that the embassy's immigration person was only concerned with workers registering false information in immigration papers.
The embassy's immigration person didn't understand how the migrants could be so gullible as to fall for this fraud. He said: "They have a choice. They can return home."
I didn't answer. I didn't see the point in answering. Unlike Wilde's young king, the embassy person's concept of "choice" could not be undone by a demonstration of the reality of a migrant worker's life.
Yes, migrant workers do have choice: they can choose to be enslaved printing Hebrew books in the Hung Hing factory in China, they can choose to be defrauded by migration shysters, they can choose to play hide-and-seek with the immigration police, they can choose to be overworked by an Israeli boss, they have so much choiceâ€¦ Some of them choose to hope that they're lucky enough to find a decent job, and get to pull themselves by their own hair from the swamp of exploitation.
THE YOUNG king ends up renouncing his golden robe, and pearls and rubies. Instead, he is adorned with divine sunbeam, and with supernatural lilies and roses, more magnificent than any gold, pearls or rubies. But real people living outside fairy tales needn't hanker for supernatural grace. Real people should promote fair trade.
Today, it's hard to tell who produces most of what we consume, and how much it costs in human suffering and pain. But the first buds of fair trade are starting to emerge in Israel. You can get fair-trade coffee, cocoa, za'atar and olive oil. These products are marketed by not-for-profit NGO Green Action, and vendors are listed on their Web site. If you support this trend, perhaps one day we needn't worry about invisible blood stains on toddlers' books.
The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved Worker's Hotline.