A New Economics of Child Labor: Searching for Answers Behind the Headlines

By Bachman, S. L. | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

A New Economics of Child Labor: Searching for Answers Behind the Headlines


Bachman, S. L., Journal of International Affairs


"If we were fired from the factory, I could go to school, but then who would feed my mother and sister?" --Shahadat, 14, Bangladeshi garment worker, 1995(2)

Child labor, as pointed out above, is not as straightforward a problem as it might seem. At least 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work worldwide. That estimate is low, and the real number of working children is most likely much greater. More than 120 million of these children are employed full-time, which means that they probably do not attend school.(3)

Child labor is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the informal economy While some children can be found in low-skill, low-tech and poorly regulated sectors of the formal economy, most working children work in agriculture, services, small-scale manufacturing and other sectors that are difficult to monitor.(4) In most countries, laws limit the employment of children in the formal sector, although these laws are not often vigorously enforced. Other factors minimizing the number of children working in formal workplaces include the presence of adult trade unions and the relatively high education, skill and physical strength demanded by most formal-sector employers.

During the last two decades, an international movement has emerged to eliminate or at least seriously reduce child labor. The movement represents a multiplicity of forces with a variety of motives that have converged because of, among other things, the pressures of globalization.(5) In the early 1980s and 1990s, international concerns about children produced a series of international conventions and commemorative declarations on children's issues. These spurred multilateral institutions (such as the International Labor Organization and UNICEF), governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics to conduct new research. Meanwhile, two other forces had a major influence on the revival of child labor issues. First, NGOs mushroomed both as critics of and as partial replacements for the failure of many governments to deliver adequate health, education and other social services to children and poor families. Second, the increase in international trade, finance and investment, and the disruption that this created in some industries caused trade unions and workers to become active in the anti-child labor movement. This was largely due to a perceived threat to the jobs of adult workers and outrage about the exploitation of children.

Attention generated by activists, unions, politicians, journalists and others convinced some consumers in developed nations to boycott child-made imports. The scope of such boycotts is a subject of debate, but they did pressure governments and businesses into exposing and reducing child labor. Many businesses responded with corporate codes of conduct and support for social programs for children, such as building new schools. Some businesses adopted purchase, sales and marketing strategies that promoted goods purportedly not made by children. And in some of these businesses, child labor has decreased.(6)

This international movement has made substantive progress in describing the child labor problem and developing solutions. Unfortunately, public attention has been partially misdirected and public policies have occasionally brought harm to the very children they were intended to help. The reasons stem from a popular misunderstanding. Contrary to popular perceptions, most child labor occurs not in sanctioned industry, but in the informal economy. This is a rather large misunderstanding: The informal economy makes up from one-third to two-thirds of the economies of developing nations, and although it is much smaller in developed countries, it is still large enough to be a repository of child labor.(7) Reasons for this misunderstanding are not hard to spot. The US anti-child labor movement, one of the primary drivers of the debate, has focused attention on child labor in imports from industrial or semi-industrial workplaces. …

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