This ideal is reflected in the corporate social responsibility policies of numerous companies (such as Marks and Spencer, Philips, and Unilever), and of those selling branded consumer goods. They have committed to eradicate any form of child labour from their supply chains.
In a similar vein, many governments have outlawed child labour domestically and sometimes also for imported products. This summer, the UK government announced plans to hold companies responsible for buying products from suppliers employing children. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a foundation is piloting a labelling system that certifies clothing as free of child labour.
Both of these seem a perfectly sensible way to protect a vulnerable group.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Child labour is far from exceptional in many parts of the globe.
There are an estimated 168 million children involved in child labour according to the International Labour Organization, accounting for 11% of children across the world.
Do parents whose offspring work love their kids any less? No. Many of these children work simply to make their families’ ends meet, poor families whose income is around the subsistence level often have little choice. We easily forget that child labour was commonplace in western societies before they were affluent. For instance, nearly half of the workforce in British cotton mills in the early 19th century consisted of children.
One may argue that a formal ban on child labour will be the requisite trigger to reform labour conditions in low-income countries, or at least improve the living situation of former child labourers. This is a naive idea, because it ignores the direct and indirect effects of such a ban.
For families with subsistence incomes who cannot rely on a societal safety net, an efficiently enforced ban can be devastating. These families must either acquiesce in abject poverty or earn money from activities not affected by a ban. This often means adults and children resorting to underground jobs, such as prostitution. In either case, children bear the loss of such a ban.
One academic study demonstrated the unintended consequences of a western-imposed ban on soccer balls stitched at home by children and their families. Researchers found that the initiative, which involved shifting the work away from homes and into more formal stitching centres, led to income drops, reduced female work participation rates, and offered no clear benefits for children of the affected Pakistani families.
When talking in terms of a categorical ban on child labour, it’s also important to understand that the involvement of children in economic activities is subject to intercultural differences. Many societies see children working as perfectly acceptable, especially in the context of family business. The Forum for African Investigative Reporters, for instance, quoted a Cameroonian farmer and father who said of his own family:
“[child labour] is considered as part of the household chores children do to help their parents. I do not consider this child abuse because we are making money that is used to pay their school fees”. Imposing a complete ban on foreign producers is a way of imposing a contemporary western mindset.
Does this mean that anything goes? No, business can and should be proactive to improve the situation of child labourers. One sound measure would be to apply some basic, unbendable rules throughout supply chains.
For example, slave labour and dangerous working conditions should be categorically forbidden.
In addition, in contexts where child labour is a financial necessity, the involvement of children should be subject to additional conditions. First, families should demonstrate, and employers should record, that the supplementary income by children is needed to attain the purchasing power for meeting their basic needs (such as food, housing, and health care).
Second, employers should take measures that make children’s working lives bearable. Working hours should be limited and the nature of tasks should be commensurate with the physical and mental abilities of the children performing them. Furthermore, firms employing children should offer prospects for improvement, such as offering on-site schooling after work.
The recent plan to construct “garment villages” in Bangladesh could easily encompass such amenities for children – although the Pakistani football-stitching case demonstrates that detaching workers from their existing social environments can be counterproductive. Finally, the effectiveness of such child labour regulation should be regularly assessed and rules should be revised when ill-performing or when local situations change.
A categorical ban on child labour is a well-intended but poorly thought out measure, because it ignores the direct and indirect effects of such a ban. It is a policy with its head in the sand, one that will overshoot the intended goal of improving the lives of children workers.
A global ban also shows disrespect for other cultures by imposing a western mindset as to the economic role of children. A more sensible policy would be to apply some basic rules of humane working conditions in conjunction with a targeted, evolving approach that duly considers the actual outcomes of implemented measures."
Image caption: "An Indian child breaks apart broken tiles outside an under-construction apartment building in Mumbai. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images"
UNICEF logo near top of UK Guardian article
Bangladesh "garment villages" linked in above UK Guardian article:
8/12/15, "Bangladesh is building “garment villages” to double its already-huge clothing exports," qz.com, Marc Bain
"The rapid growth of Bangladesh’s garment industry has been a blessing and a burden to the country. Even as it has provided jobs to millions and helped Bangladesh cut its poverty rate, it has also exploited the nation’s poorest and most desperate, leading to the gratuitous and preventable deaths of thousands (see: Rana Plaza in 2013).
So invaluable is the industry to Bangladesh that the country is doubling down on the business, despite the repercussions. Already the world’s second largest exporter of clothing by some estimates, Bangladesh intends to double its apparel exports to $50 billion by 2021.
These villages don’t just show a commitment by the government to making more money off the garment industry, which now accounts for nearly 82% of Bangladesh’s total exports. They’re also supposed to make conditions safer for the workers in them.
Currently factories in these cities tend to be spread around in an unplanned manner, which makes them hard to monitor, and they can spring up wherever space is available, including in decrepit, unsafe buildings. In Bausia, factories that don’t currently comply with regulations will be moved to the villages, where workplace, health, and fire safety regulations can be enforced. Plans for the Bausia village even include facilities for medical treatment, proper waste disposal, and day care, which is critical given that about 80% of Bangladesh’s garment workers are women, and they tend to be entirely responsible for child care.
Government plans for a garment village have apparently been floating around since as early as 2005. But in a manner sadly typical of the way Bangladesh’s garment workers are generally treated, it wasn’t until the deaths at the Tazreen factory fire and Rana Plaza that the government began moving forward in earnest.
The US, which is the largest importer of garments from Bangladesh, has thrown its support behind the country’s target of doubling exports and the Chittagong plan. Marcia Bernicat, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, called it “an ambitious, but very possible goal” and said it demonstrates “that business success goes hand-in-hand with workers’ rights and safety.” The US will reportedly join with two Bangladeshi banks in offering a $22 million credit guarantee on loans to help improve safety in garment factories.
It all sounds very positive and should create much-needed jobs, even though, as it stands, those jobs pay miserably.
WEF—like others—also noted that Bangladesh’s garment workers make far below a living wage.
At the announcement, Ahmed urged retailers to pay more for the work they receive, but retailers have little incentive to do so. In response to the topic at a later discussion, HandM’s country head in Bangladesh reportedly said that companies would pay higher prices for merchandise (which presumably would translate into higher factory wages) if manufacturers boosted the quality and efficiency of their production."