A Case Against Child Labor Prohibitions
4 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2014
Date Written: July 29, 2014
Halima is an 11-year-old girl who clips loose threads off of Hanes underwear in a Bangladeshi factory. She works about eight hours a day, six days per week. She has to process 150 pairs of underwear an hour. At work she feels “very tired and exhausted,” and sometimes falls asleep standing up. She makes 53 cents a day for her efforts. Make no mistake, it is a rough life.
Any decent person’s heart would go out to Halima and other child employees like her. Unfortunately, all too often, people’s emotional reaction lead them to advocate policies that will harm the very children they intend to help. Provisions against child labor are part of the International Labor Organization’s core labor standards. Anti-sweatshop groups almost universally condemn child labor and call for laws prohibiting child employment or boycotting products made with child labor.
In my recent book, Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy, I argue that much of what the anti-sweatshop movement agitates for would harm workers and that the process of economic development, in which sweatshops play an important role, is the best way to raise wages and improve working conditions. Child labor, although the most emotionally charged aspect of sweatshops, is not an exception to this analysis.
We should desire to see an end to child labor, but it has to come through a process that generates better opportunities for the children — not from legislative mandates that prevent children and their families from taking the best option available to them. Children work because their families are desperately poor, and the meager addition to the family income they can contribute is often necessary for survival. Banning child labor through trade regulations or governmental prohibitions often simply forces the children into less-desirable alternatives. When U.S. activists started pressuring Bangladesh into eliminating child labor, the results were disastrous.
Keywords: child labor, employment
JEL Classification: E2, E24, F66, J01, J08, J8, J82, K31
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