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Child labour (or child labor) is the situation where children are allowed or required to perform significant amounts of productive labor (what adults call "working for a living") in addition to or instead of receiving an education. It does not typically refer to children helping around the home or performing chores for pocket money, but to labor outside the home. However, in family businesses, particularly in agriculture and hospitality, there is often a grey area with children expected to help out.
In the developed world it is often relatively benign (excluding child prostitution and trafficking, and less severe problems like children being too tired to study, missing out on extracurricular activities, etc). It is a far more serious problem in poorer countries where children may be the main breadwinners for their families, forced into dangerous jobs for tiny sums of money and denied the ability to attend school. Because children who work will tend to be uneducated and unskilled (especially if they're working when other children are at school), the work is often menial manual labour. Throughout the world, some children earn money as actors, models, etc.; this is commonly regulated rather differently than other forms of paid work, but some of the same issues apply.
As with anything else obviously bad, contrarians are queuing up to explain that child labor is actually in the interests of children, their parents, and customers. Their arguments are not terribly persuasive, but tackling poverty is hard, or at least expensive, so instead of raising taxes why not rely on child workers instead? Especially when their tiny hands make such nice things.
In the past most children received little formal education, and it was expected that they would be earning money from an early age. In England, even when compulsory education was introduced in 1870, most children left school at the age of 10, or younger in areas where children were needed for agricultural work. Their tiny hands are so good for picking fruit.
Child labor is still common in many of the poorer countries of the world. 2012 ILO figures say 168 million children are involved in child labour, with agriculture accounting for 59% of those; in sub-Saharan Africa over 21% of children work.
"Children have worked for millennia, but it is only in the last hundred years or so that this work has been seen as problematic", according to the ILO. Education has long been valued, but it was formerly only for the rich or middle classes. Since the late 19th century, there has been a movement to get children out of work and into education. This will in theory be beneficial for the child, who will achieve fuller mental, emotional, and intellectual development, and better life prospects, even if it means parents must support the child for longer and do without the wages the child might earn. In England the minimum school leaving age increased from an initial 10 in 1870 to 14 in 1921 to 16 in 1972, with debate continuing about whether to extend it further.
Even in wealthy countries, child labor persists. Although much of this is done on weekends, holidays, or after school, it can still have a bad effect on education. In 1998, 9% of American 15-year olds worked in term-time and 18% in the summer; a 1997 study found that 3.6% of American 14- and 15-year olds worked 15 or more hours per week.; in Denmark in 1993, 59% of 15-year olds had some form of employment. There is particular concern about dangerous and exploitative forms of work such as child prostitution, even though the numbers involved are very difficult to quantify.
Campaigners are active in the Third World, and with those people in western countries who buy their cheap goods, and child labor worldwide was reduced by a third between 2000 and 2012.
Is child labor really all that bad? Don't we want to encourage children to be productive members of society? Shouldn't they learn useful workplace skills rather than memorise useless facts, dates, and liberal propaganda?
Indeed the advantages of child labor have been proposed by some of those on the libertarian right. In particular, for poor children abroad it's a lot cheaper than aid, and it doesn't involve either taxation or restrictions on business. A 2005 study by the Royal Economic Society found that banning the most dangerous forms of child labor, "prostitutes, drug-traffickers, in quarries and mines", was bad because this would drive down wages for other forms of child labor and increase poverty.
Pro-child labor arguments include:
- Children enjoy working: "It could be fun."
- Banning child labor means that only criminals will employ children: the result is lower wages and worse working conditions, as employers pass on the increased risks (of going to jail). This omits the fact that if the risk is really great, it becomes more economical to pay decent wages and get good workers.
- Buying goods produced by child labour is a form of aid: it "transfers money from the rich of the West to the poor of the East."
- It reduces prices: "I remain baffled why no Scottish politician campaigns to cut the price of our groceries. Would it not be popular? I'm not advocating sending any child into dangerous or degrading roles, but I do believe every school could allow pupils to widen their knowledge and experience by participating in local commercial life."
- Critics who say that child labor lowers adult wages actually hate women: "A pernicious argument is that children working stop adults earning full wages. This is precisely the economic dunce-speak that used to argue a woman's place is in the home."
- It costs money to combat child labour: for instance to compensate parents for lost income, and this money comes out of your taxes.
- It can combat labor shortages: in areas where women are not allowed to work, allowing children to work can make up for lost income.
- Child labour is an opportunity: an opportunity for what isn't mentioned (to be exploited? To see the evils of capitalism first-hand? to lose a limb in badly-maintained machinery? To gain work experience and thereby overcome employers' fear of inexperience?) but "working in scruffy factories in Manila or Nairobi is an opportunity for the people involved".
- The religious argument: "We were all created to work and work is good."
Most of these arguments are very weak. While child labour could in theory teach children valuable things that they don't learn in school, in practice it often means menial, repetitive labour such as pulling up vegetables or performing simple manufacturing tasks. It very seldom involves initiative, creativity, entrepreneurship, overseas conferences, or any other aspect that right-wing pundits enjoy about their work.
"Aid is famously described as a device by which the poor people in the West fund the rich of the Third World. But free trade in shirts transfers money from the rich of the West to the poor of the East." This shows total ignorance of where most of the money goes from goods manufactured by child labor. If you want to help a child in poverty, give to Oxfam, don't buy the cheapest trainers you can find.
Even non-financial benefits that working for a living might offer, such as discipline and order (which right-wingers always claim children lack), or social interaction with one's peers (often the only thing that makes menial jobs bearable), can be provided in education. Many schools already try to teach subjects relevant to the world of work, such as business studies, commercial art, or office administration, as well as short periods of work experience and supporting entrepreneurship, though much more could be done.
The most serious argument is that it's really expensive to replace the income children would receive: alleviating poverty and providing education are among the best ways to tackle child labor, but are much less cheap than simply throwing a few bosses in jail. Replacing the income of 200 million child workers receiving on average $500 per year would cost $100 bn per year, less than 20% of the US defense budget, but still quite a lot of money.
- See the Wikipedia article on Child labour.
- Child Labor on US Department of Labor website
- Child Labor on History.com
- "Child Labour", International Labour Organization
- "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
- Raising of school leaving age in England and Wales
- CPS, 1998, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
- National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
- Frederiksen, Lisa. 1999. Child and Youth Employment in Denmark: Comments on Children’s Work from Their Own Perspective. Childhood. 6(1): 101-12, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
- "It's official: child labour is a good thing", David Harrison, The Daily Telegraph
- "Economic truths of child labour", John Blundell, The Scotsman, 23 Feb 2004, reproduced on Institute of Economic Affairs website
- John Blundell (economist)
- Child Labor Bans Actually Make Things Worse For The Poorest Children, Business Insider, Nov. 11, 2013
- 5 positive sides of child labor, Extremology.com, March 3, 2013
- 5 Reasons Your Child Should Work, Mark Merrill
- Typical wages are as low as $0.11 per hour in some industries — Your Beautiful Indian Rug Was Probably Made By Child Labor, Megha Bahree, Forbes, Feb 5, 2014
- The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor In India, Human Rights Watch, 1996