The flashpoint is Bolivia, where the laws were rewritten to allow children as young as 10 to work alongside their parents and to enter formal employment at 12. "To eliminate work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people's social conscience," says Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales. This was the culmination of a campaign led by UNATsBO, an organization representing Bolivian working children, led by children with advice from adults. One of their adult advisors is Manfred Liebel, a German political scientist. His writings combine familiar radical tropes with passionate belief in the virtue of child labor.
Here are a couple of representative snippets from one of his articles dating from 2003, the year that UNATSBO was founded:
[Working children’s organizations are] questioning traditional age hierarchies and establishing new, more egalitarian relationships between the generations. But they also personify a massive criticism of different aspects of the western bourgeois way of thinking and behaviour and pave the way for an understanding of the subject until now unknown or unaccepted in the western world.
In accordance with other social movements of repressed and excluded population groups in the South, the working children’s organizations reclaim and practise a subject-understanding and a subject-existence based on human dignity and the respect for human life. (p. 273)
The subject-understanding and the subject-praxis of the working children’s organizations also go beyond the modern western understanding of childhood. According to this understanding, the children are indeed granted a certain autonomy and given protection from risks, but these concessions happen at the cost of an active and responsible role for the children in society. The children are practically excluded from adult life and assigned to special reservations in which they are ‘raised’, ‘educated’ and prepared for the future. Their possible influence on this future is confined to the individual ‘qualification’ of each person, yet not to decisions about the arrangement of social relationships. These remain reserved for the adults or the power elite. (p. 274)Well, you get the idea. The attempt to eliminate child labor denies the essential humanity of children. It wants to impose a capitalist conception of their role in society which prioritizes their future productivity at the expense of what they can do in the present. It is hierarchical and expresses a colonial, eurocentric mindset.
Liebel is one of a number of child labor researchers who have banded together under the banner of “child labor protagonism”. They’ve made it their mission to dismantle regulations that interfere with the choice many children want to make, to earn some money by working. In January of this year 59 of them sent an open letter to the UN commission that administers the Convention on the Rights of the Child, urging them to disconnect the CRC from other international agreements that set minimum ages for certain types of work. This provoked a response from Human Rights Watch and a rebuttal from the Group of 59.
You can read the documents and decide for yourself. I have rather strong feelings about this topic, having spent years myself studying child labor. I recognize that it raises many difficult questions, and reasonable people can disagree. I believe, however, that most of the arguments of the protagonistas are straw men (straw kids?), although the HRW statement is rather weak as well—legally defensive rather than substantively engaged.
To really dig into the issues would take more time and space than my life or EconoSpeak permits. Here are a few bald statements, however:
Whether children want to work or not is not a decisive issue for policy on child labor. Sorry. Minimum wage laws prevent people from accepting jobs that pay less than the minimum, and occupational safety laws often interfere with the freedom of workers to take jobs that regulators have decided are dangerous. Food safety laws tell you what substances you're not allowed to eat in your food, even if you want to. Regulations interfere with free individual choice, for adults as well as children. That doesn’t mean that all regulations are good or that we should ignore what people whose freedom will be impinged have to say about them, but the “statism” of regulation is not a general argument for deregulation either.
Yes, child labor has played a central role in every traditional culture. Of course. Until very recently average lifespans were short. If the average lifespan of those who make it out of infancy is, say, 40, it makes no sense to delay work until the age of 15. And with much lower productivity, every pair of hands was needed. But the new reality is that people can expect to live a lot longer, even in the poorest parts of the world, and childhood as a time of investment and development is inescapable. I’m not for cultural imperialism, but I’m not for consigning whole generations of kids growing up in traditional cultures to lifelong poverty.
Which leads to the main point. Of course, no general rule regarding child labor fits the situation of every child. No matter what limits you impose—whether you make 14 or 12 or 3 the age of consent for employment—some children will be harmed. Every regulation does this. But not regulating can also cause harm, and the sensible thing to do is strike a balance, to minimize the sum of harms. Take the case of domestic child labor, a flashpoint of the current debate. An International Labor Organization Convention categorizes this as a “worst form of child labor”, and indeed there are horror stories galore of young children, especially girls, exploited economically, socially and sexually as underage servants. But many children work at domestic service without any serious harm, some of them even bonding with the families they live with. So what’s the call? The ideal would be to have an army of investigators checking into each domestic situation, separating the noble from the evil, but that’s not going to happen. (First reports out of Bolivia say that the government there doesn’t have the resources to monitor newly legalized child labor for the treatment of children. Surprise.) So in the end some sort of regulation is necessary, with the expectation that those enforcing it will act flexibly in situations where the regulation is clearly inappropriate.
Finally, I think the eminent researchers are wrong about two important points. First, quite generally, substantial time devoted to child labor tends to have harmful effects on education, especially as measured by cognitive test scores and grade advancement; you can read about it here. Second, as the only researcher who has studied the question in a disciplined way, I can say that greater exploitation of children compared to adults, while by no means universal, is characteristic of many work situations. These potential negative spillovers to adult labor markets were the reason why labor movements were in the forefront of opposition to child labor. We now have at least some evidence that their fears were not imaginary.
I should stop: this has already gone on too long. But I don’t want to check out before saying that I agree with one of the main arguments of the Grupo 59: simple prohibition is generally not a good way to combat child labor. Much better is the strategy of providing income support for poor families, and, although the evidence is less clear, I suspect that substantially improving schools in the poorest regions will increase the time and commitment that children devote to them. The way forward is through support and opportunity, not prohibition and punishment. But the child labor crusaders at the UN say this too.
UPDATE: Hoisted from my own comment: "After sleeping on this, I now think I should have emphasized the fundamental point, that massive poverty and underinvestment in children is the core problem, which shows up in a variety of symptoms. You can certainly debate how much emphasis should be given to regulations versus transfer programs versus school enhancement. The problem I have with protagonistas like Liebel is that they seem to deny there is a problem in the first place, or they define it down to just specific instances of exploitive work."