I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?
One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.
So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.