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Gasp! The Benefits Of Child Labor In The Developing World

CCA LiveE | Sunday December 5th, 2010 | 15 Comments

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Lindsay Melnick:

Child labor is a sensitive subject with a negative connotation in our society. While the topic of this article appears provocative, that is not my intention. I initially set forth to write an anti-child labor piece to promote awareness of the government mandated child labor issue in Uzbekistan. That country is the second-largest cotton exporter in the world and half of the country’s cotton harvest is said to come from child labor.

Why did this article take such a drastic turn? Because I found the reasoning behind the existence of child labor in modern day society a much more compelling and less touched upon topic that I believe needs to be acknowledged. As an apparel industry insider, I have experienced my fair share of factory travel. With each visit, the morality of the (behind the scenes) utilization of children in these factories has weighed heavily on my conscience.

If asked, most people in our society will tell you that they are dead set against the concept of child labor. They look disapprovingly at developing countries where young children perform manual labor for long hours when they should be in school learning. Yes, children should be in school. Yes, they should be out playing with friends and enjoying their childhood.

However, we do not live in a perfect world. Child labor is pervasive for the simple reason that impoverished households who cannot meet their basic needs may depend on the income of their children for survival. In many cases, these families are so poor that every member of their family needs to work. It is likely that these families cannot afford the cost of education for their children. Even when schooling is ostensibly ‘free’ studies have shown that parents incur other direct costs such as activity fees, uniforms, paper and pens, text books, transport, lunches and others which often result in the exclusion of poor children from school. I am stating the obvious to say that child labor creates a trade-off between labor and education. However, if their choice is either starving or going to school, isn’t survival the obvious choice?

While the majority of NGO’s work towards saving children from labor is seen as commendable, it has the potential to cause more harm than good. Foreign governments and organizations working toward making it illegal for these children to earn an honest income may in turn, force them down dangerous paths. It is common for homeless children or those without parents or adult supervision to be pushed into the sex trade or towards other criminal activities in order to earn money to survive. In this context, working in sweatshops is a far better solution.

The evils of child labor are as indisputable, as is its economic necessity. I believe that child labor has a place in the world economy. Those of us in the developed world need to foster empathy for the families who have to put their children to work in order to survive. Organizations should not be spending their time fighting to abolish child labor but rather work alongside it. They need to be realistic about the challenges these families face.

Work where child-laborers can still get an education is the answer. NGO’s should use their resources to provide schools in factories, so that for a few hours a day, the children can stop working and learn basic skills. In a daunting situation this would be a commendable solution, as it is after all tackling the real issue by being pragmatic and empathetic to why these children are working in the first place.

Education is broadly used as an instrument for social change and widely regarded as the route to economic prosperity. These children deserve the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and education is a vehicle for achieving this objective.


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  • Tim Malcomson

    Thanks for your thought provoking article, Lindsay.

    Child labour is such a complex of competing contexts. I agree that we need:

    – to be more aware and tolerant of the need for children from poor communities to be part of reducing family vulnerability,

    – to ensure that working children’s rights are respected (abuses of which the Bolivian child workers union has recently decided to challenge)

    – to ensure that children are properly remunerated for the work they do (many are bonded labour or domestic labourers and therefore work for little or no reward to themselves and little to their families)

    – to promote ways in which child workers have access to savings and credit so that they can think beyond what they have in their pockets.

    However, I do not think that it is the role of NGOs to legitimise the gaps delivered through social and economic structural corruption – created through transnational economic design in both developing and developed countries. Social and economic greed and self-interest should not be passively enjoyed by industry and customers and then industry expect responsibility for the fall out of such greed to be taken on by charitable provision. Instead it needs to be challenged systemically … it is the comfortable relationship between supply and demand of industries like yours that ensure wages are low. This is not a self-evident reality, it is something industry creates for profit and we collude in as customers.

    We, as NGOs, might have to take on the responsibility of supporting child labourers but only because industry and the public in developed countries and captains of industry and resource hungry governments of the developing world do not see it as theirs!

  • Ann Pezzoli

    Lindsay, I need to contact you regarding permission to reprint this article. I did a request through the web site but did not get any reply. Please contact me apezzoli@measinc.com

  • Ben

    When I read Lindsay Melnick’s article I wonder how someone can argue for child labor.

    Melnick’s article tries to convey that children should be educated even if they have to work in sweat shops. But she fails to realize that these sweat shops don’t care about the children’s welfare as long as the children are healthy and strong to complete the days task.

    Additionally, the countries that allow child labor will not educate them because they do not want them educated. Once educated these children will revolt against the system. Education in third world countries is dangerous to the establishment so it will never be encouraged by these countries ruling class that benefit from their exploits.

    If Melnick’s concept was realized the only thing she will have accomplished is children working the same hours as they do now with these exploiting countries now saying that their exploited children are also learning when they won’t be. The exploiting countries will educate the children on the basics of producing more for their exploiter.

    Melnick’s article, although somewhat sympathetic for children, seems more worried about the world economy than it does the exploited children of the world. The point with child labor is it’s wrong and corrupt. I’m not talking about seven year old Little Johnny who helps Grandpa milk the cows and work the fields. I’m talking about child labor that Melnick claims she has seen in person.

    Melnick and I do both agree that the environment these children are in needs to be better. However where we disagree is how we achieve our goal. In my opinion the economic argument should say that the developed countries should not allow imports made with child labor into our borders, period. That will make the economic impact that Melnick desires.

    Additionally, the sentence in Melnick’s article ” Work where child-laborers can still get an education is the answer” is an unrealistic dream. Also the sentence, “These children deserve the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and education being a vehicle for achieving this objective” is certainly a grand idea but that’s in a perfect world, If we lived in a perfect world we wouldn’t be discussing this issue to begin with.

    Next time Melnick is viewing children in a factory in Uzbekistan she should open her eyes and mind. She should not look at the production and their output potential but rather rather in their eyes and try and empathize with them, then re-evaluate her decision.

  • Keagan

    May i use this for school oral?

    • Lindsay Melnick

      yes, please do! sorry for the delay in my reply.

  • John

    I believe this article reduces the responsibility of consumers and companies alike to end child labor. The issue should not be that if these children do not work they have to turn to crime. The issue should be that if the parents of the children were provided a livable wage by the companies employing them none of it would be necessary. I think your “real world” concept behind this theory comes from a place of entitlement. If these children were you your own sons, daughters, or relations you would sing a completely different tune. I think the child labor issue is really a part of a bigger issue which is corporations moving into third world countries and exploiting its inhabitants because of there dire situations. We should be moving towards solutions to this problem, not toward accepting it as a “necessary evil”. If consumers were more mindful instead of using logic such as this to alleviate guilt maybe something could be done about it.