The Nobel Peace Prize: was there more than meets the eye to Kailash Satyarthi’s selection?

Let me be quite up-front about a few things. One, I confess I had only vaguely heard about Kailash Satyarthi before the Nobel Peace Prize 2014 came looking for him. Two, I am as delighted as anyone else that global recognition has come to an Indian who’s involved in a good cause. Three, I do believe the issue of preventing child labor is as good a cause as it gets, especially as in dangerous occupations, and worse, in pedophilia.

Nevertheless, I have a few concerns about the award of the Nobel Prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousufzai. First is the implied, and articulated, hyphenation between the two. Second is the overtly political nature of the prize. Third is the over-broad nature of assumptions made about what constitutes child labor. Fourth is the root cause of child labor and how to ameliorate it.

First, it has been a foregone conclusion that Malala Yousufzai would sooner or later get the Nobel Peace Prize, for her exceptional courage in the face of the oppression of women and girl-children in Pakistan. But how the prize committee suddenly chanced upon Kailash Satyarthi and decided to co-anoint him and to make a broad generalization about child labor and child protection is a bit mysterious.


It almost sounds as though the committee wanted to recognize Malala, and for good measure (two-for-one) decided to throw in a somewhat obscure Indian activist too. Not to diminish Satyarthi, but there is a decided feeling of “let’s now force-fit an Indian into this, so we can have some fearful symmetry”). For, there is a vast gulf between the concerns the two deal with. To say they both deal with children is banal; you might as well say they both deal with people: for gender is the big divide.

Perhaps the prize committee is ignorant of the fact that, despite the geographical proximity of India and Pakistan, the two countries are like chalk and cheese: we have almost nothing in common with each other. There is a western tendency to lump India with Pakistan (a hyphenation of India-Pakistan-equal-equal which annoys Indians because India is seven times larger, has ambitions to be one of the G3 of global powers, and is not a theocratic failing state and a military dictatorship as Pakistan is).

This hyphenation is about as absurd as hyphenating, say Cuba with the United States just because of geography.

Furthermore, the issues Kailash and Malala deal with are vastly different. Kailash Satyarthi has been working on the exploitation of children as domestic servants, in hazardous professions, in pedophilia, and in other ways robbing them of their childhood, their education, their health and their sense of self.

This, unfortunately, is a problem of poverty. Child labor happens everywhere where people have a hand-to-mouth existence, and in particular because an extra pair of hands in the field or the factory is economically rational because the marginal cost of feeding that extra mouth is minimal. It has nothing per se to do with India, or Hinduism for that matter.

On the other hand, what Malala was fighting against is a purely Islamic issue: the devaluation of women and girl-children. Her home area in Pakistan had come under the sway of fundamentalist and patriarchal Muslim clerics of the Taliban, who decreed that women, as per their interpretation of their religion, needed to be cloistered, and denied education.

In fact, this is a peculiarly Muslim problem, and there is no point in obfuscating it. Consider the women of Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive, or to work except in all-woman environments. Consider the endemic female genital mutilation in some Muslim cultures. Consider the Christian schoolgirls abducted as sex-slaves by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Consider the 4,000 Yazidi girls and women continually gang-raped by ISIS in Iraq. Womens’ rights of various kinds are a recurring and constant problem in Muslim societies.

While it is true that there are many issues of exploitation of women in India, there is little justification for that based on religion, and Indian women are increasingly visible in all walks of life. One of the delightful photographs about Mangalyaan showed very traditional-looking, middle-aged, middle-class women aerospace engineers in mission control whooping it up! Now that is about as male a domain as it gets – rocket engineers; I don’t remember seeing photos of many women in NASA control rooms.


However, the Nobel committee’s citation explicitly hyphenated the two countries. This is a gross error of extrapolation, and is unfair to India. They said, and I quote, that the committee “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

Why are they bothered about the nationalities or religions of the two? So far as I know, when they offered the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le DucTho, they did not say how wonderful it was that “a Jew and a Buddhist”, formerly bitter adversaries as “an American and a Vietnamese” had worked together for a peace deal. When Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were honored by another Peace Prize, they were never “a Muslim and two Jews” of warring “Palestine and Israel”.

Why, then, this special treatment for “Hindus and Muslims” and “Indians and Pakistanis”? This raises several questions – is the West attempting to interfere yet again in the Indian subcontinent? Especially as Malala called for both Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi to attend her prize ceremony? This could well be child-like and genuine on her part, but geopolitically, it is yet another, in the ad nauseam series of interventions that the West have made in the subcontinent, much to our detriment.

One clue is in the personalities in the Nobel Peace Prize committee. The chairman of the committee used to be the president of Socialist International, which is a worldwide grouping of far-left ideological groupings.No wonder it has made some baffling selections, such as Barack Obama (2009) and the European Union (2012), not to mention Teresa (1979) and Henry Kissinger (1973). The Peace Prize has become overtly political, and it has deteriorated into geopolitical point-scoring rather than honoring a genuine achiever.

Furthermore, there are severe ethnocentric assumptions about exactly what constitutes ‘child labor’. Apparently, American children delivering newspapers or washing cars or mowing lawns or slinging burgers at McDonald’s doesn’t count as child labor. But an Indian child, son of a farmer, who helps his father while learning the craft of farming, is being forced into child labor? So there is ‘good’ child labor and ‘bad’ child labor? Is that like the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’?


It is not appropriate to use Western norms to judge what Indians might do. Western norms are not universal, as much as the West and their sepoys in the mainstream media (and other brown sahebs/sahebas) might claim they are. For instance, the transmission of a craft has traditionally been from parent to child. Traditionally, all craftsmen have passed on their craft using apprenticeships.

I accept that there are many illegal practices that go on in India regarding children. Some children are abducted, maimed and turned into beggars. Some are forced to be domestic servants or equivalent in restaurants, hotels and homes. Others work in dangerous jobs such as rag-pickers sifting through mounds of rubbish. Yet others have been forced into child prostitution. It is entirely laudable when Kailash Satyarthi and others focus on these terrible practices.

The problem is when blanket bans are imposed. For instance, on the face of it, the ‘Rugmark’ certification that no child labor went into carpets sounds like a good idea. But then what of weavers who are passing on their skills to their children? Are they violating some law? The issue of weavers is particularly galling based on historical wrongs, as we shall see in a minute.

It turns out that sometimes the imposition of a ban leads to even worse abuse. When children are forced out of work by ‘Rugmark’ and over-zealous inspectors, then the only avenue open to some of them becomes prostitution. Let us note in passing that the biggest customers for child prostitution and child pornography tend to be Westerners. Frying pan into the fire for the children?

There is a broad sociological question: given that Indians are among the most attentive and affectionate parents in the world, why on earth would they allow their children to be exploited? Survey after survey shows that Indian parents will sacrifice to great extents for their children. A recent example was Rural Postal Life Insurance. Even extremely poor people were willing to put aside their pitiful savings into life insurance if it helped ensure that their children would get an education even if they themselves died.

Why on earth would such parents – and perhaps this is an example of Indian exceptionalism in a world where increasingly the State is supposed to provide for children and later for elderly parents – condemn their children to a life of unfulfilled promise by forcing them into child labor? The only answer is poverty. As much as Kailash Satyarthi might disagree, poverty causes child labor (although I accept the reverse may also be true). I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to that effect, first hand observations in Kerala.

When I was a child and teenager, we used to have in our modest middle-class home an occasional live-in maid who herself was a teenager. Several of these girls were sent to live with us by their indigent parents, because they figured the girls would get to go to school, and get sufficient food. Interestingly some of them were from recently-converted SC families: they even retained their Hindu names, but went to church. And apparently the church lost interest in them as soon as they converted, so they were back in penury.

I am not sure if these girls considered themselves exploited. But the fact is that there are no such girls any more in Kerala. A perennial complaint housewives have is the lack of maids. The maids I see these days are all middle-aged, and no live-in service, thank you: they come for a couple of hours each day, and get paid fairly well on a per-hour basis. What has changed is that prosperity has come to Kerala, in the form of overseas remittances. As poverty disappeared, so did child labor.

Thus child labor is a symptom of an underlying disease: underdevelopment. Therefore the solution to it is development. To focus on child labor, a symptom, is to do premature optimization, which leads to unforeseen (and usually negative) consequences to the system. Granted, development doesn’t come overnight, but if you recognize poverty as the issue, it’s better to work on that.

And where did the poverty come from? Ironically, on the very same day as the Nobel was announced, The Economist magazine was kind enough to publish the following chart showing how the world’s top three economies fared in the past 2,000 years.


I have seen variants of this data from the economic historian Angus Maddison, and the sum and substance of it is that India was the world’s biggest economy throughout the history that Westerners recognize (not surprisingly, it is the Christian Era). Yes, the biggest, all the way from 1 CE until 1700 CE except for a single blip when the Chinese overtook them in 1600 (possibly because the Muslim invasion had damaged India’s competence somewhat, especially because of lots of wars.)

In 1700, India was once again the biggest economy, but then look at what happened to it: the Battle of Plassey took place in 1757, and enabled Britain’s conquest of Bengal. India’s GDP plunged, and by 1900 it had disappeared altogether from the top 3, to be replaced by Britain! In fact, Britain, 2% of world GDP in 1700 and India, 27%, virtually swapped places. Thus, it was the Christian invasion that totally impoverished India, far more than the Muslims. Colonial looters destroyed India’s industrial capability and forced it to regress into a raw material supplier and a market into which they could dump goods. A simple reckoning suggests that they extracted $10 trillion from India, at current exchange rates.

In 1700, the world’s biggest centers of industry were four river deltas: the Brahmaputra and Kaveri in India, and the Pearl River and the Yangtze in China, which, together accounted for some 20% of global output in manufactured goods. In India, a large part of it was in high-quality textiles and other light manufacturing. The case of Dhaka muslin is especially poignant.

The city of Dhaka, the source of the finest fabric in the world, declined precipitously after the British systematically destroyed the weavers: legend has it that they cut off their thumbs. Perhaps more prosaically, the British forced Indians to buy Lancashire mill cloth made of Indian cotton, with a ruinous transfer price, extracting usurious profits and degrading the hitherto prosperous weavers from skilled artisans into unskilled labor, from which they have not recovered even now, three centuries later.

Thus, it is reasonable for Indians to feel a little queasy when that very same industry, weaving, is targeted by the very same imperial forces bent on maintaining their dominance. India lost its onetime stranglehold on fabric – just look at the plethora of Indian words (seersucker, paisley, chintz, calico, cashmere, madras) related to it – and has yet to recover.

Thus, while I am glad that Kailash Satyarthi has won an important prize, I cannot but feel that there is something slightly cynical and calculating about the way the prize was awarded and that it is not intended to help India at all.


Rajeev Srinivasan is a writer and well-known columnist from India.
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  • edsa0601

    Hindu nationalists are forever moaning the wretched state of India today (following 1000 years of foreign domination; 1200 years of slavery as PM Modi called it).
    So what to do? Return to the past and fabricate a glorious ancient period when India had the biggest economy and highest GDP.
    But, pray, where is the evidence? It’s just wild patriotic assertions. It is such flippant claims that invite contempt from the West.

  • Akaula Kaula

    Nothing sells like success, more so if such success comes with the approval certificate from the West. As Mr Satyarthi said in Interview, that these questions have never bothered him in the past, and are not going to bother him now, given the fact he has a certificate from the West. The colonized minds in India, will see to it that he is lionized, and never question him beyond pleasantries. After all they are part of the same dispensation too. So enjoy the R**e, until you can get effective control of the nation.

  • Yashwant C Mishra

    Is there any independent check of this 80K figure for children “rescued from slavery” by Satyarthi?

  • slayer

    Bullshit article by a piece of shit douche who has done nothing with his life apart from writing asinine crap like this…

  • Lakshmanan Krishnamurti

    Mr. Rajeev Srinivasan thank you for sharing with us the history of mankind, british imperialism and the shennanigans of the nobel committee.. I must disagree with you on some of your assumption and the conclusions that follow. 1. child labor is due to poverty. No the poor one is the victim not the perpetrator of the exploitation. 2. Child labor is the way traditional skills are taught therefore it is OK. Actually most child labor has nothing to do with traditional crafts. Ask the millions of chotus working tea stalls and salims fixing trucks. Talk about a childhood stolen. If my son is one minute late to enter school, I will get a phone call by that evening highlighting the consequences of repeat offence even though i personally signed him in.If the government was serious about protecting traditional crafts they would reach out to the artisan and ensure that their children get a secular education as well as the ability to practice their art and to be able to market their product better. When have you seen a single government advert. for programs for children of artisans. Faced with the entire administrative might of the Tamil Nadu Government, which for 40 years been hell bent on dismantling vedic hinduism, with private funding veda paatshalas are continuing traditional learning. Their curriculum includes secular studies. Many priests now have an MA in Sanskrit. It is really amazing how much difference it makes to how they communicate with the world around them. 3. India and Pakistan are like chalk and cheese and that abuse of women is an” Islamic” problem. Perhaps you may want to talk to your wife about that. Maybe pick a day when you don’t have a romantic evening planned. While participation of women in the public space is dramatically different in the urban centers in India, women’s rights on whole are not that much better. Noticing not many women in shops, hotels or restaurants on a recent visit to Jaisalmer. I related my experience 20 years ago to my guide. As a doctor in the Air Force I was sent to Jaisalmer and in the clinic there I expected as is usual, to have a female attendant when I examined female patients, but there was none to be had. I asked around and was told Sir, no man here is so poor that he will ask his wife to work outside the home. Sahib, said the man with some pride, it is still the same today. We had one girl become Rajasthan State IAS, but she could not get married I still remember the smell of burning flesh in the numerous dowry deaths I took care of in ED. Kerosene stores must carry warning labels or kerosene should have fire retardants added to it so it will only burn in the vapor from. So they have honor killings in the tribal areas and we burn our brides in upper middle class educated families.4. Malala was a Shoo-in and Satyarthi was an added extra. you provide no data to support an extraordinary claim. A single act of bravery in posting a blog, with horrific consequences and a quick learner in communications to become an effective spokesperson for the female child; that is Malala. A life time of dedicated unsung work rescuing children from mind boggling exploitation and actually adopting many many such children; that is Satyarthi. If some work does not appear on the media, It does not mean it is not happening. Nor is the person doing that work ‘ obscure’. 5. Nobel committe is playing politics in Hyphenating India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim. It is not the Nobel committee but us and our actions over the last 100 years that create these hyphenations. The world see us for what we are barbaric blood thirsty cousins maintaining a blood feud for generations and ready to go to war for a frozen tundra and a once beautiful area where the people want no part of either country. What if Nobel folks are playing politics naive, but well intentioned. An Indian got a nobel prize, be happy for him and move on. As a journalist you had to write something quickly, so you rehashed all the usual stuff. Some us expect better from you.

    • If one same evil is seen in two places that evil is bad indeed BUT if you wish to remove that evil the cures will have to be different. In India, there is no Hindu ideological opposition to women education. In Pakistan the theological state caught in Sharia of Taliban, there is. Hence India and Pakistan cannot be equated. Dont you see that this fitting in of Satyarthi, who should have been given the Prize a year later (with full justification and right to bash India for its child labor evil), was to equate Islamic evil with an imagined Hindu evil. Islamic societies have to come out of their ideological faith of female suppression. Hindu society does not have that article of faith, it was educating women always, though at home as was the custom in all pre-industrial societies. The Nobel Committee has always had those Leftists who always equate every Islamic drawback with some Hindu drawback. They preach it here in India all the time, that purdah was initially Hindu, so was temple breaking and oppression of women.
      In fact, they belittled Satyarthi by coupling her with Malala.

  • Another Indian

    This article is good. It could have been two different articles. In fact, you should write another article on how much and how geopolitics and economics was affected by the “Raj” as we called it. I strongly feel that the “Empire” brought about many of the economic woes affecting so called “third-world” (a term I don’t agree with) countries in Africa and Asia.

  • Arun

    So that you rely on what Satyarthi’s actual statements are rather than what is reported in the media, about the causes and effects of child labor, here an excerpt from a speech of his:


    The push factors include abject poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness, parents’ gullibility and a child un-friendly mindset in communities Then there are socio-cultural discrimination, gender bias, denial of legal safeguards and thin outreach of development benefits. The absence or inadequacy of educational facilities, the state’s incapability to effectively handle natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, droughts and famines, are other causes. Development
    disasters such as deforestation, mining and displacement are largely responsible for children falling prey to child labour.

    Greedy employers looking for a vulnerable, docile and cheap workforce, bribery and other forms of corruption and apathy among law enforcement agencies, combined with connivance among traffickers, employers, politicians and bureaucracy are some of the pull factors. In addition to the fact that children provide cheap or free labour, they are preferred to adults
    because they do not challenge employers or form unions, are unable to demand decent work and never resort to strikes despite abuse and exploitation.


    Studies prove that child labour is a significant cause that creates and perpetuates poverty and
    unemployment. It is also a serious obstacle in achieving education goals. Each child is employed at the cost of an adult’s job. There are 21.5 crore child labourers worldwide, while there are 26 crore unemployed adults. Studies have revealed that most of the jobless adults
    are the parents of full-time child labourers. This is a vicious circle.No country could possibly solve the problem of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy without eliminating child labour.

    A recent UN study on the economic aspects of child labour reveals that an investment of $1 on the elimination of child labour will return $7 over a period of 20 years. While lack of education is a cause of child labour, it is also its consequence and effect. Education is the single most important tool of growth that can be given to children to take them out of the rut of poverty and to better their lives. Bringing children under the ambit of education requires getting them liberated from the trap of child labour.

    End quote.

  • Arun

    a. Kailash Satyarthi was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize before 2008.

    b. The current focus in the media on Satyarthi’s contributions to India does not do him justice. This focus is no doubt driven by the wording of the Nobel award. But I think Satyarthi’s international efforts are at least as significant as his efforts in India.

    c. On the global scene, the International Labor Organization convention that Satyarthi was instrumental in pushing, is C182 – Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999.

    This convention does not seek to ban *all* child labor.

    For the purposes of this Convention, the term the worst forms of child labour comprises:

    (a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

    (b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

    (c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;

    (d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

    End quote.

    I think that is quite clear. It won’t keep a child from helping his parents with the harvest.

    d. I think Satyarthi makes an excellent point in his speeches, that poverty is not the only reason for child labor. It exists because employers find children to be more convenient to employ than adults. In India, according to Satyarthi, since employers put adult wages on their books but actually pay child wages, this results in an enormous amount of black money. Some of this money is funneled to pay off the state apparatus that is supposed to protect the children – there are very few prosecutions for exploitative child labor in India; and the few convictions result in miniscule fines.

    Satyarthi also points out that most children caught up in exploitative child labor have unemployed parents. It would be better for society and the economy if the parents were employed instead of the children.

    e. Satyarthi doesn’t say this explicitly, but I’ll make the point that without decent state protection for children (or labor in general), there is “a race to the bottom”, where employers who exploit children are able to outcompete employers who want to do the right thing.

    f. After perusing Satyarthi’s work, I did an estimate that leads me to believe if spent effectively, just 0.04% of India’s GDP annually can greatly improve the lot of child labor. Of course, in India, the problem is how to spend any development money effectively. But we should be encouraged to think of this not as a huge problem that is beyond our resources and imagination as to one that can be solved with finite resources and in a definite time frame.

  • vpnc

    nasa apparently is made of 60% Indians. let us suppose nasa releases a pic of its mars orbiter team, which is primarily made of Indians and Chinese, what kind of impact will it have on a world which views white people/cultures so highly?

    • slayer

      nasa is NOT made of 60% indians dumbass.

  • vpnc

    an essential part of mcdonalds (or other American/European brands) success abroad is the perception of it being American, of America being super smart (for its technological innovations), being successful and rich etc implying it knows the right way to live etc – so a worthy model to emulate and follow by other countries. it is this perception which makes America the superpower more than its military might and facilitates its business dominance across the world. in contrast an india which though has a dynamic native culture which has historically dominated asia (and is actually a rival alternate model of life to the western one), is rising again after hundreds of years and achieving technological feats that even Americans are unable to match (mangalyaan) – but heck “india can’t even feed its people, its people don’t even have toilets, its children are not even safe” etc etc etc … so who will recognize and follow india? perception is more important than reality.

  • Vidya

    Thank you for putting into words my thoughts on this matter. Political correctness and “balancing” has replaced respect and recognition for excellence and instead dragged down every decent person/organization to the level of the worst offenders in that class. Thus, the minute one says ISIS/Al Quaida, RSS/Bajrang Dal is brought in, just like the ever-present India-Pak pairing. With the Nobel Committee too now propagating such balancing acts, we are in for more pseudo-pairing till nothing good will be recognized in an entity unless some other otherwise opposite entity shows that same “good” too!

  • Radha Rajan

    Rajeev, excellent as usual. when I heard Satyarthi got it, I thought to myself – Martin Macwan with a Hindu name. Martin was given the Robert Kennedy yooman rights prize too and only at the instance of his white patron saint – Kathy Sridhar. Satyarthi had a white patron saint too. It remains to be known – who.

    • vpnc

      >Satyarthi had a white patron saint too. It remains to be known – who
      bill Clinton?

  • KC

    Did Mr. Satyarthi conspired with Western Governments to harm India’s
    World Famous Rug Industry and demonize India and Indians and got awards and money in return?

    1. 18 years ago, in 1996, Kailash Satyarthi took his then 10 year daughter
    Miss Asmita Satyarthi as a Star Witness before a Foreign Government –
    USA Congressional hearing on child labor ( US Congressional hearings
    related to anything India are India-bashing and demonizing events, eg.
    USCIRF, John Dayal testimony ).
    2. US Congressional hearing on Child Labor which was held in May 1996 was chaired by Congressman Joeseph Kennedy.
    3. A year before this Congressional hearing, in 1995, Satyarthi got Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
    4. Robert F. Kennedy was Joseph Kennedy’s dad
    5. Kerry Kennedy is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights which awarded Kailash Satyarthi.
    6. Kerry Kennedy is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and sister of Congressman Joeseph Kennedy

    This is just one example. Research more and You connect the dots.

  • Rina Mukherji

    Want to point out though, child labour is far more rampant in Muslim-dominated districts in India than Hindu-dominated ones. Murshidabad in West Bengal is a case in point.

  • sighbaboo

    Dear Rajeev-ji,
    A very nice article. Thanks for writing it.

    In particular, I would like to provide the following document in relationship to your arguments on ethnocentric definitions of child labour.

    Given here –> are recommendations of Parliamentary Standing Committee’s on Amendments to Child Labour Act & the Labour Ministry’s response ( in case you have not seen the same). Rebuttals on items where it says “Disagreed” on the last column are particularly educative.

    It appears to me that the Standing Committee had (in some instances) Western notions, while the Ministry has made some solid points. In particular, kindly go through Page 14, Para 4.9 and around there. The Committee’s language appears *borrowed* & the Ministry’s response are specific & well-thought out.

    I got this document while going through: (an Organization chaired by Shri. Satyarthi) and (an online petition sponsored by the above Organization w.r.t Child Labour Act reforms)

    Thanks again,

  • Dr M

    There is a great need to spread this information amongst the Indian Middle Class – so brain damaged are they by all-things-phoren & therefore so gullible that any shit delivered subtly (like what this nobel peace prize selection committee has done) is swallowed lock-stock-n-barrel!

    Very good article – keep going Strong!

    • What does your Pradhan Sevak say about his fascination with all things “phoren”? If you want to travel in bullet trains then you have to be willing to sacrifice your children as lab rats for our GMOs as well! 😀

  • esshridhar

    The article is an eye-opener. West forgets the child labour employed in their own lands or Australia eg children employed in Shearing of sheep and rams for wool and toys