Unbeknownst to many in the developed world, the supply chains which bring them their consumer goods are rife with labor abuse. From slave labor, to child labor, efforts are made throughout the process to create a humane economy. Unfortunately, it’s clearly not enough, as there are 10 million more child laborers in today’s economy than there were in 2012.
First it’s important to define child labor, because many children work, but in such a way it’s not defined as “child labor.” Per the U.N. child labor is “work that is inappropriate for a child’s age, prevents compulsory education, or is likely to harm health, safety, or moral development.” As the U.N. notes, in many agrarian societies early child labor is synonymous with education and actively contributes to their livelihood. As such, it’s not considered child labor for the purposes of the U.N. count.
This carve out is important as it protects children who are otherwise employed in fields which help them gain valuable skills. As the U.N. Food and Agricultural Chief, Jose Graziano da Silva said, “when children do many hours of heavy labor daily, when they do heavy work, when they carry out tasks that are dangerous or inappropriate for their age, when this impedes their education, this is child labor and needs to be eliminated.”
Despite that carve out for legitimate child labor, there are over 152 million children work in child labor around the world. The moral catastrophe that represents is clear. The economic catastrophe less so, but every dollar spent on early childhood education produces far more than a child labor to labor market pipeline ever will. Which is something Graziano da Silva gestured to with his “when this impedes their education, this is child labor and needs to be eliminated” comment. And while it doesn’t have the same moral clarity that ending child labor for the sake of the 152 million child laborers does, the economic angle is by and large the argument that eventually pushes states to put an end to child labor.
However, in a global economic system that demands profit, child labor is a tempting way to boost the laborforce in developing economies. And when profit is the motive, the moral argument of 152 million children’s lives, pales in comparison. Luckily, as stated above, investments in childhood education are some of the most profitable investments a country could make and thanks to the U.N. this argument has gained traction all around the world.
For example, India banned child labor in April of 2015, largely on the basis of this sort of education is more valuable argument. Prior to that though, the Indian constitution enshrined a child’s right to labor in nonhazardous industries. Harckening back to the dichotomy between “education equals money in the future” and “child labor equals more family money now.” While in theory, education is a valuable investment, it’s simply not possible for some children.
Graziano da Silva commented on this dynamic, “household poverty remains a common cause of childhood labor in agriculture, in this context social protection programs and school feeding initiatives that link with family farmers have proven to be good antidotes to this problem.”
In the end, the solution to child labor isn’t to beat the developing world with the stick of education. But instead to create an economy where children’s lives don’t need to be commodified, whether they are at home, school, or work.