The Political Economy of Child Labor and Its Mpacts on International Business

Article excerpt


Child labor is linked to global business directly and, more commonly, indirectly. Critics blame increased trade and financial flows for increased child labor, and those criticisms have undermined the legitimacy of further trade and financial liberalization. Companies--including multinationals such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Ikea and the Brazilian subsidiaries of U.S. and European automobile manufacturers--have responded with a range of initiatives. Unless business responses alleviate the worst forms of child labor, the legitimacy of continued trade and financial liberalization will continue to be undermined by perceptions that liberalization disproportionately hurts children, especially child workers.

Children have worked for as long as families have needed all hands to pitch in. Beyond defining work as a means of survival, however, defining what work is appropriate for children and what (if anything) to do about inappropriate work involves more complex judgments--especially for firms doing business in the global economy.

The International Labor Organization estimates that around the world 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work, about 120 million of them fulltime. [1] Some of these children work in factories and other workplaces in the formal economy, but the vast majority work in informal enterprises, agriculture and in homes. International firms are part of this economy not only if they hire children, but also if they buy goods or services from children or from companies that make such purchases.

International business has come under increased pressure from social activists, trade unions and others to help find new solutions to end exploitative work for children and to help them get the education and training they need to become productive adults. Companies in the spotlight include respected multi-national corporations as well as many other lesser-known businesses.

Child labor has been a concern of the formal, industrial economy since the beginning of the Industrial Age. By the end of World War II, however, most developed countries had passed laws against child labor, at least in industry. Child labor had declined in developed countries in any case, due to a combination of several factors. These include the increasing sophistication of technology in the workplace (reducing the demand for low-skilled workers), greater productivity and consequently higher wages (reducing the need to send children to work instead of school) and higher school attendance (reducing the supply of child labor).

Child labor re-emerged as a public concern in the 1980s and 1990s. This time, worry was expressed across a broad spectrum of opinion--from United Nations agencies, to non-governmental organizations, educators, social workers, trade unions, cause-driven investors, and the news media--that "globalization" was increasing the incidence of child labor. [2] This time, "child labor" meant more than only children in industry. "Child labor" is now understood to mean children working in both the formal and informal economic sectors, in legal work and illegal occupations such as bonded labor, slavery, soldiering, and prostitution. That poses a new question: What kind of "child labor" should be of concern to international business?

From the disparate groups mentioned above has emerged a global campaign to eradicate child labor. One of the best-known parts of this campaign involves an effort to ban from international trade goods made by children. This linkage between child labor and trade makes child labor at least an indirect concern for many businesses. Even if firms do not themselves employ children, they operate within a global system of commerce, manufacturing, procurement and trade that--in part--does.

The balance of this paper explores the business economics of child labor in four parts. …