Gasp! The Benefits Of Child Labor In The Developing World

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.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.