Reports regarding child labor surface periodically. Children crawling in mines, faces ashen, body deformed. The agile fingers of famished infants weaving soccer balls for their more privileged counterparts in the USA. Tiny figures huddled in sweatshops, toiling in unspeakable conditions. It is all heart-rending and it gave rise to a veritable not-so-cottage industry of activists, commentators, legal eagles, scholars, and opportunistically sympathetic politicians.
Ask the denizens of Thailand, sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, or Morocco and they will tell you how they regard this altruistic hyperactivity - with suspicion and resentment. Underneath the compelling arguments lurks an agenda of trade protectionism, they wholeheartedly believe. Stringent - and expensive - labor and environmental provisions in international treaties may well be a ploy to fend off imports based on cheap labor and the competition they wreak on well-ensconced domestic industries and their political stooges.
This is especially galling since the sanctimonious West has amassed its wealth on the broken backs of slaves and kids. The 1900 census in the USA found that 18 percent of all children - almost two million in all - were gainfully employed. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional laws banning child labor as late as 1916. This decision was overturned only in 1941.
Child labor - let alone child prostitution, child soldiers, and child slavery - are phenomena best avoided. But they cannot and should not be tackled in isolation. Nor should underage labor be subjected to blanket castigation. Working in the gold mines or fisheries of the Philippines is hardly comparable to waiting on tables in a Nigerian or, for that matter, American restaurant.
There are gradations and hues of child labor. That children should not be exposed to hazardous conditions, long working hours, used as means of payment, physically punished, or serve as sex slaves is commonly agreed. That they should not help their parents plant and harvest may be more debatable.
In many impoverished locales, child labor is all that stands between the family unit and all-pervasive, life threatening, destitution. Child labor declines markedly as income per capita grows. To deprive these bread-earners of the opportunity to lift themselves and their families incrementally above malnutrition, disease, and famine - is an apex of immoral hypocrisy.
Quoted by "The Economist", a representative of the much decried Ecuador Banana Growers Association and Ecuador's Labor Minister, summed up the dilemma neatly: "Just because they are under age doesn't mean we should reject them, they have a right to survive. You can't just say they can't work, you have to provide alternatives."
Regrettably, the debate is so laden with emotions and self-serving arguments that the facts are often overlooked.
The outcry against soccer balls stitched by children in Pakistan led to the relocation of workshops ran by Nike and Reebok. Thousands lost their jobs, including countless women and 7000 of their progeny. The average family income - anyhow meager - fell by 20 percent. Economists Drusilla Brown, Alan Deardorif, and Robert Stern observe wryly:
"While Baden Sports can quite credibly claim that their soccer balls are not sewn by children, the relocation of their production facility undoubtedly did nothing for their former child workers and their families."
Such examples abound. Manufacturers - fearing legal reprisals and "reputation risks" (naming-and-shaming by overzealous NGO's) - engage in preemptive sacking. German garment workshops fired 50,000 children in Bangladesh in 1993 in anticipation of the American never-legislated Child Labor Deterrence Act.
Quoted by Wasserstein, former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, notes:
"Stopping child labor without doing anything else could leave children worse off. If they are working out of necessity, as most are, stopping them could force them into prostitution or other employment with greater personal dangers. The most important thing is that they be in school and receive the education to help them leave poverty."