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Debating on Child Labor

UNICEF defines child labor as, “work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work. Such work is considered harmful to the child and should therefore be eliminated.”From our Western point of view, child labor is absolutely not acceptable in any case and governments, labor institutions, NGOs and companies should work together to eliminate this terrible plague, which hinders the poorest countries’ development. Nevertheless, eliminating child labor can “sometimes” do more harm than good…which is very difficult for us to admit. Let’s check the pros and cons of this complicated and hot debate, which keeps dividing child protection associations.

These days, about “158 million children from 5 to 14 are engaged in Child Labor” says the {{LNK|UNICEF|}}, mainly in South Asia (60%) and South-Saharan Africa (30%). Child labor is particularly developed in poor countries, where children often work to help their families survive financially. The reality is, many families can’t do without supplemental earnings and encourage their kids to go to factories instead of schools. In our Western culture, we condemn these practices by developing programs with NGO or institutions to forbid the use of children as workers in local factories, without understanding that we are “not always” improving the system and are at odds with the reality of extreme poverty.

The cons of Child labor

• Children workers often have extremely difficult working conditions: very long work duration (from 12 to 16 hours a day), injuries from machinery, health problems from chemical poisonings, and no access to drinking water or toilet blocks. Children who have worked in these conditions suffer from life-long disabilities and die at younger ages. This kind of child labor is of course absolutely immoral.

• Because of their young age, children are less expensive to hire, less likely to protest on their working conditions or salaries, and therefore, easier to fire. Businesses are not bound by any regulations and most of companies tend to abuse this situation and literally exploit them.

• While children are getting jobs in factories because of their low wages, adults often face difficulties to find work due to child competition. They tend to feel unproductive and ashamed that they can’t support the family, but that their children are, which causes social issues.

• By working every day, children miss school and the proper education that could enable them to find better-paid jobs in their adult lives. Children labor perpetuates poverty and exploitation from companies.

The Pros of Child Labor

• Child labor may be a financial necessity for families, who don’t make enough money to buy the basic essentials to survive. “Poverty is the main cause of child labor”, and “the less educated the parents, the more likely the child will work” explains {{LNK|Werner Haas|}}. In certain areas, families are forced to make their children work to be able to feed them, which is simply tragic…but the grim reality!

• Child workers are not always exploited like in Dickens’ books: they may work alongside with their parents to run the family business, like for instance to help at a restaurant or at a shop. Child labor can be seen as a “participation” in foreign families’ work ethic, and was part of normal life in almost every society in history.

• In certain cases, regulations can do more harm than good. For instance, read the case explained by {{LNK|Toby Webb|}} from EthicalCorp. As already happened in Bangladesh or Pakistan, companies can forbid child labor because of pressure from Western customers. Children that used to work in textile factories lose their jobs overnight and end-up working in less-paid sectors, with more dangerous working conditions like metalworking, or worse join criminal activities or sex trade. Child labor in textile factories may be safer than the alternatives.

Child labor may be acceptable if the work is appropriate, light and not harmful to their health or development, and if children have time left to attend school. In our context of intensive globalization, price is the main buying factor for consumers. Companies will then be tempted to cut their costs, and keep using child labor. A reasonable compromise could be found for children: companies, associations and governments together could set up programs, like in Brazil, to divide children’s time between their work at factories to help their families and school attendance, which is their only chance to build a better future. Is it, as {{LNK|Toby Webb explains|}}, the “best of bad options”?

Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves the influence of Western consumers who always want to buy goods at the lowest prices but at the same time condemn the use of child labor or the lack of environmental protection from companies. The important increase of {{LNK|fair trade|}} in recent years proves that we have a role to play and are finally ready to take conscience of our purchases’ impact on the social and environmental stakes of the planet.
If you want to react on this subject, don’t hesitate to {{LNK|join the discussion in the forum|}} !

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