Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

Universal Moral Principles and the Law: The Failure of One-Size-Fits-All Child Labor Laws

Academic journal article Houston Journal of International Law

Universal Moral Principles and the Law: The Failure of One-Size-Fits-All Child Labor Laws

Article excerpt

     A. Historical Development of Child Labor Laws in
        India: British Rule to Independence and the
     B. The Causes and Contexts of Perpetual Child Labor
        in India
     C. The Failure of Child Labor Laws in India

Since the time of tribes and clans, children have gathered food or helped their mothers clean the caves and camps. Children's help was necessary and expected because it was not enough for just the father to collect food. When market-related jobs became common, children were expected to work, earn money, and give their earnings to their parents to buy food and shelter. From the 1400s until merely a short time ago, the practice of parents giving children to those to whom they were indebted for the purpose of labor, or indentured service, was common. Indentured service fostered child abuse, but it was not until much later that this fact was even considered. In general, from prehistoric times until the 1900s children worked to support their family's income.

This article presents a friendly critique of the efforts of human rights advocates to use the law to accelerate the pace of historical change in the area of child labor. Part I of this article provides an introduction to the various issues and the different approaches in addressing child labor. Part II traces the evolution of attitudes and behavior regarding child labor in the United States as a demonstration of the role of affluence in providing the economic preconditions that contribute to successful child labor statutes. Part III of this article is a similar exploration focusing on India. The purpose of this comparison of experiences is to highlight the importance of context as a basis for effective legal action. Finally, Part IV of this article suggests the danger in applying what one sees as a universal moral principle in diverse, international contexts.


In the span of about one hundred years, from 1900 to 2000, the industrialized, "first world" nations have experienced a dramatic shift in ideological perspective regarding the propriety of child labor. (1) This ideological shift initially manifested itself in the national regulation of child labor, namely, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933, (2) passed as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. (3) More recently, heightened repugnance to child labor among developed economies has led to an increasing volume of international treaties and conventions regarding the rights of children. (4)

Such international declarations of universal rights are highly attractive in that they appeal to our sense of humanity; indeed, there are very powerful arguments suggesting that certain normative states ought to exist among humans regardless of differences in culture, religion, worldview, geographic location, or economic disposition. However, scholars and policymakers alike must recognize the inherent danger in wholeheartedly embracing and imposing a universal moral vision upon other groups in situations as emotionally, economically, culturally, and developmentally complex as that of child labor, particularly where power disparity exists. (5)

Multiple scholars have analyzed the success and failure of the international community in eradicating child labor under the assumption that, because the West has made great strides in ameliorating the problem of child labor, the rest of the world should follow suit. Indeed, one such scholar, Kristin Weldon, concludes that "child labor is deplorable no matter what the situation." (6) Weldon advocates a renewed commitment to the enforcement of International Labor Organization (ILO) regulations. (7) The ILO is an organization that has ratified numerous conventions regarding the universal rights of workers, including children, to counter the abhorrent nature of child labor. …

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