Could the plastics recycling industry in Asia face pressure over working conditions, similar to how various groups have pressured corporate giants like Apple, Wal-Mart and Nike over working conditions in the (mostly Asian) factories that make their products?
An advocate for recycling workers in India thinks so, and believes such attention would help improve conditions, at least in his country.
Vinod Shetty, head of the Mumbai-based Acorn Foundation, made that point to me in a recent conversation about the tough working conditions in India's recycling industry.
During a work trip to India, I shot this video and wrote this story from a tour of plastics recycling factories in Dharavi, a massive slum in Mumbai that's also home to more than a thousand small-scale plastics recycling factories.
The plastics recycling trade association in Dharavi graciously met with me for a tour and a discussion of the difficulties they face, including low oil prices and rising costs for land and electricity. I really appreciate the group sitting down with me and kindly sharing their thoughts.
I followed that up by checking with Shetty about the difficult conditions for workers, and he took the conversation in a direction I wasn't entirely expecting.
Rather than criticize the companies, many of which have fewer than 10 workers and are poorly capitalized, he suggested pressuring the end-users of the recycled materials, the larger consumer product companies and other manufacturers that buy the recycled plastic for their products.
Shetty's theory is if they face consumer pressure or embarrassment over working conditions in factories they're sourcing materials from, they're more likely to find the better recycling companies, similar to how groups pressure major electronics and clothing brands over their supply chains.
He believes that would benefit the companies that have better conditions. Without such pressure, it's hard for companies to upgrade their standards because of the tough business environment, Shetty argues. Right now, recycling in India seems pretty much like an unregulated race to the bottom.
India's not alone. This mid-June report from Singapore's Channel News Asia, for example, focuses on a 12-year-old boy working full-time in a small factory in Indonesia recycling plastic bottles for less than $2 a day, but how he really wants to go to school, as he should.
The video and story was marking June 12 as World Day Against Child Labor. Watching it leaves the impression that parts of Indonesia's recycling industry are in a similar race to the bottom.
I don't know if Shetty's idea could work. India's recycling industry doesn't play the same huge role that China does in global supply chains — at least not yet.
But as India's manufacturing industry gets more integrated globally, if it becomes a real sourcing hub as India's leaders want it to (aka the next China) it could face the same kind of pressure that China and others have faced on workplace conditions.