Sunday, August 22, 2010

The reality of child labor

I recently came across an 1997 report by UNICEF that listed "four myths about child labor". I found some of the discussion on myths three and four to be particularly illuminating:
The third myth is that most child labourers are at work in the sweatshops of industries exporting cheap goods to the stores of the rich world. Soccer balls made by children in Pakistan for use by children in industrialized countries may provide a compelling symbol, but in fact, only a very small proportion of all child workers are employed in export industries - probably less than 5 per cent. Most of the world’s child labourers actually are to be found in the informal sector - selling on the street, at work in agriculture or hidden away in houses — far from the reach of official labour inspectors and from media scrutiny.

Myth four is that the only way to make headway against child labour is for consumers and governments to apply pressure through sanctions and boycotts. While international commitment and pressure are important, boycotts and other sweeping measures can only affect export sectors, which are relatively small exploiters of child labour. Such measures are also blunt instruments with long-term consequences that can actually harm rather than help the children involved. UNICEF advocates a comprehensive strategy against hazardous child labour that supports and develops local initiatives and provides alternatives - notably compulsory primary education of high quality - for liberated children. (Emphasis mine.)
There's a tendency to view this issue as a morality play, with evil multinational corporations exploiting children for cheap labor. Yet as this report notes, most children actually work outside the formal sector: they hawk goods on the street, work long hours on a farm, or work in a small factory producing goods that will never come close to the Western market. In this world, heavy-handed attempts by advocates in rich countries to end child labor can easily be harmful, as they depress the export market and hence the nascent manufacturing base that is necessary to pull a country out of poverty.


Anonymous said...

Matt - How much time have you spent in the supply chains of South Asia and elsewhere.

Without consumer pressure (not boycotts)for change there will be no incentive for change within the supply chain.

You say - "only a very small proportion of all child workers are employed in export industries - probably less than 5 percent". Though the largest percentage of exploited children work in agriculture and as domestic servants at <5% - you're still talking about almost 11 million children.

Is consumer pressure to ensure export markets abide by their own labor laws “heavy handed”? Do you support children soldiers and the child sex trades – there must be a theoretical economic benefit - think of small the percentage of children involved in these activities must be…

Are you planning on becoming an economic expert for the FOX networks?

Matt Rognlie said...

You mention how most exploited children work in agriculture, as domestic servants, or even the child sex trade. This is precisely why I think that overzealous campaigns to purge "sweatshops" (something of a misnomer because they tend to be inside and involve less sweat than many of the alternatives, like scouring a trash heap or begging in the 110 degree sun) may do net harm.

First, many of the children who are forced to work in export manufacturing will simply be forced to work in worse occupations if their jobs in manufacturing are removed.

Second, it is extremely unlikely that Western pressure against low-cost export manufacturing will be applied so finely that it will only eliminate child labor in that the sector. Instead, it will make the sector less economical in general, which can have extremely serious implications for economic development (the only sustainable way to eliminate child labor across the board).

Again, the vast majority of the sustainable growth success stories -- the ones where most GDP growth doesn't come from extracting natural resources -- in the past few decades have begun with a development of a low-cost manufacturing base.

China and now Vietnam are good current examples. South Korea and Taiwan are excellent examples of this process taken to completion: five decades ago they were poorer than most African nations, and today they are rich.