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Unraveling Child Labor and Labor Legislation

Article excerpt

"The reality that forces poor families to defy child labor laws raises doubts about whether legislation can be enforced successfully."

In 1993, social workers and human rights activists were stunned when approximately 70,000 youngsters were unceremoniously thrown out of the Bangladeshi garment industry, prompted by the threat of a US bill to ban imports of goods made by children. (1) Deprived of a regular income, many of the children were driven to the informal sector, which, though unregulated and poorly paid, protected them from the scrutiny of the international media. (2) Although ostensibly aimed at eliminating the exploitation of children worldwide, the potential passing of the US Child Labor Deterrence Act of 1992 (better known as the Harkin Bill after its sponsor, Senator Tom Harkin) caused thousands of already impoverished Bangladeshi children to be pushed further into poverty. In this case, an assertion of human rights legislation resulted in an even greater violation of the rights of the children involved. A comprehensive study conducted by UNICEF found that many of the children had been forced into dangerous jobs and that the girls had become more vulnerable to sexual abuse. (3)

The surprising consequences of such well-intentioned legislation calls into question the effectiveness of legislative bans as a weapon against child labor. The reality that forces poor families to defy child labor laws raises doubts about whether legislation can be enforced successfully. In fact, could it be counter-productive by leading to a worsening of poor children's welfare?

Proponents of banning child labor often equate child labor with slavery and claim that the employers of children are only interested in profits. Banning child labor, activists argue, is the most effective way to ensure that it is eliminated. Most case studies, however, show that the motivation for sending children to work in the first place is economic and cultural; if such pressures did not drive families, they would generally prefer not to place their children in exploitative situations. Child labor is linked (no matter how complex and intricate the linkage may be) to poverty and underdevelopment. The notion that simply banning child labor will force children to go to school is simplistic and dangerous. The fate of the child workers banned from Bangladesh's garment industry in 1993 is a case in point.

While this paper argues that legislative bans alone may be harmful to the child laborers, it does not argue for the dismantling of labor laws and minimum age legislation. On the contrary, what is necessary is an increase in the level of government intervention to solve the problem, using a set of policies that target the complex roots of child labor. In the first section, this paper attempts to define child labor and set out a typology to underscore the importance of understanding its various sources. The second section sets out the theory behind the demand and supply of child labor--factors which should be studied in detail before intervention is designed. The third section describes current child labor legislation and argues that it inadequately addresses many of the determinants of child labor. The final section assesses public and international policy implications of the analysis.


Given the scale and nature of the problem, it is surprising how little critical analysis of child labor has been conducted. In fact, this is a field of study where prescription has far outstripped analysis. This is partly due to the fact that data is hard to come by (most governments do not want to record high levels of an officially illegal activity), and what is available is often inaccurate and scanty. (4) Since child labor is an extremely complex phenomenon rooted in various economic, social and cultural characteristics of the society in which it exists, it is imperative to study these roots before policies are designed to eliminate child labor. …