February 21st, 2008

Child Labor

photo credit: Osvaldo_Zoom

Jeff Lindsay wrote a post this morning highlighting the similarities many see between child labor and slavery. Indeed, most of us have been raised in an environment that condemns such an “atrocity”, which allegedly capitalizes upon the young and naïve, often compensates them very little, and sidetracks them from their studies and so-called “normal social development”.

I believe, however, that one must question conventional wisdom in this case (as in all others) and scrutinize the underlying principles. I came across one article that does just that:

Might these folks have something to offer the workplace? And might the young benefit from a bit of early work experience, too? Perhaps — but we’ll never know, thanks to antiquated federal, state, and local laws that make it a crime to hire a kid.

Pop culture accepts these laws as a normal part of national life, a means to forestall a Dickensian nightmare of sweat shops and the capitalist exploitation of children. It’s time we rid ourselves of images of children tied to rug looms in the developing world. The kids I’m talking about are one of the most courted of all consumer sectors. Society wants them to consume, but law forbids them to produce.

As the author of this article goes on to discuss, the prevention of child labor removes from the matrix of exchange the opportunity for their compensation of services. It is proposed, with such legislation, that the parents produce enough to satisfy the consumption demands of them and their children.

The problem with such a segregated work situation—preventing children from working until their teenage and adult years—is that there is no transition provided, nor an opportunity afforded to get ahead and learn the principles of labor, exchange, and business at an earlier age than allowed. Masses of college graduates are found unfit for the workplace, highly unprepared for a full day’s job without having had previous experiential development.

Opponents of child labor might skip over the minimum-wage children of our society and focus on those of developing nations, as Jeff’s blog post mentions. Drawing a comparison between a domestic rate of $7 per hour and a foreign one of 20 cents per hour conjures up images of sweatshops, horrible conditions, and meager pay for an impoverished subsistence.

It is important to note, however, that while such wages provided for children in foreign labor are far lower than they are domestically, the same holds true for the adult population as well. For example, the average compensation for a day laborer in Zambia equates to two U.S. dollars. A child earning slightly less is understandable in an economy that offers such low wages to begin with.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a variety of jobs that paid far, far less than what I currently earn. This is natural and proper—a worker with less skill, endurance, and ability is in less of a demand, and therefore is offered less for his services. As such, children demand a lower wage than their working adult counterparts.

A distinction must be made here between voluntary child labor and forced child labor. Under no circumstances should a child be forced into a labor camp, nor offered a government-fixed wage at a substandard rate, nor be made subject to laws that encourage or allow such circumstances. Voluntary child labor, however, is natural, and is the choice of the individual. Many children, due to war, disease, and disability, are the heads of their respective households. They therefore find it necessary to abandon their education—hopefully temporarily—and earn a living.

This is not to say that child labor is an ideal situation. In our culture, we clearly understand the benefit of an early and continuing education. Such a life path is to be encouraged, and privately supported through donors and activists who take it upon themselves to provide similar opportunities for those in want. But while we are aware of the ideal, life circumstances nevertheless demand, at times, that a child labor for his/her sustenance.

We may be appalled at the low wages, or disgusted with the conditions, but so long as the enterprise (being morally sound) is a voluntary one, we cannot condemn it. That individual weighed his/her options and made a choice, based upon their values and desires. Should we disagree, we have the opportunity to effect change through private aid and assistance. Anything short of that, and especially government intervention to restrict this avenue for renumeration, does more harm to the child than good.

24 Responses to “Child Labor”

  1. curtis
    February 21, 2008 at 2:44 pm #

    A distinction must be made here between voluntary child labor and forced child labor. Under no circumstances should a child be forced into a labor camp, nor offered a government-fixed wage at a substandard rate, nor be made subject to laws that encourage or allow such circumstances.

    That’s the problem though. Children are so vulnerable that this distinction often can’t be made. Especially once a child enters a work voluntarily and then is unable to leave the job due to feelings of guilt, loyalty etc,, whereas an adult would easily be able to leave.

    We may be appalled at the low wages, or disgusted with the conditions, but so long as the enterprise (being morally sound) is a voluntary one, we cannot condemn it.

    Why does the venture have to be morally sound? It seems your premise here is that kids should be able to make these choices for themselves. Why shouldn’t a child be able to voluntarily enter employment as a child prostitute? or a as a mercenary/soldier? Also, are you advocating against a certain level of safety or hygene conditions here? Are you advocating against minimum wage laws?

  2. Connor
    February 21, 2008 at 3:00 pm #

    Children are so vulnerable that this distinction often can’t be made.

    I agree with this assessment. Where possible, however, this choice remains with the individual, as well as his/her family. I do not believe that government has the legal authority to dictate what the child should do.

    Especially once a child enters a work voluntarily and then is unable to leave the job due to feelings of guilt, loyalty etc,, whereas an adult would easily be able to leave.

    This same thing could be said of adults, who likewise might feel compelled to stay in a job or act based on persuasion, guilt, pressure, etc. While the child might have tried and tested cognitive abilities, the legislator knows far less about the circumstances and therefore cannot effectively opine on the matter.

    Why does the venture have to be morally sound?

    Certain things are inherently morally wrong, such as prostitution, as you point out. Labor itself (the moral kind) is the domain of the individual, where he/she can choose what skills to acquire and how to spend his/her time. With cases of immorality, the government has the ability to intervene (such as murder, theft, abuse, etc.). In the case of prostitution, then, one can easily condemn the practice itself, as it is a venture that falls short of the morality test.

    This is like saying that we should prevent children from eating bubble gum. There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating bubble gum, so why prevent kids from doing it? On the other hand, we might legislate to prevent them from consuming harmful substances. But in this case, it is not the child that should be punished (for he has limited accountability), but the purveyor of the opportunity. The drug peddler, the pimp, the employer, the enabler—these are they whom we should legislate against for encouraging and enticing the practice.

    A child should only be prevented from doing something that is inherently harmful to them, infringes upon the liberty of another, or is likewise prohibited regardless of one’s age. Denying children the opportunity to earn wages for their services, gain experience in the workforce, network with others and apprentice in various fields, is not the domain of the legislator. Such choices should be left up to the child and his/her family, after taking into consideration their circumstances, values, and opportunities.

  3. Daniel
    February 21, 2008 at 6:01 pm #

    I know why you’re coming out for child labour. You’ve hired a swag of new employees, and your posts and comments are now being written by third graders.

    But child labour is natural, right? What tho’ they are driv’n to it by conditions of penury? The choice belongs to the individual and the family!

    What are these children doing lounging about reading detestable comic books and playing Wii all day? Are there no workhouses? The experience of toiling in a factory will do wonders for their education. Unless, of course, time is limited, and they have to choose either/or. Their free choice, as always. Education v. eating.

    Good to know there are ideological conservatives like you, Connor, aiding and abetting the rights of corporations to race each other to the bottom in an effort to more fully exploit heretofore untouchable sources of labour! Keep it up! And don’t forget prison labour while you’re at it! When your dream comes true, and government is abandoned, companies will scarcely have to pay anyone anything, and that’ll be good for business.

  4. Connor
    February 22, 2008 at 8:19 am #

    Cute, Daniel.

    Of interest today is an article from KSL highlighting alleged child labor among some FLDS-related companies in Southern Utah.

    The end of the article notes the odd law that permits child labor when the parent owns 100% of the company. Those legislators sure do know what they’re doing…

  5. Connor
    February 22, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    Note: the link to the quoted article in this post was not working. It’s now fixed.

  6. Russell Page
    February 22, 2008 at 10:55 am #

    This comment is purely my own doing . . . and Connor can correct me if I’m off base here.

    First, Connor is nothing like the “conservatives” you read about in 99.9 percent of the media. Just a simple observation. There’s a theme to the things he writes about, and it’s not so much conservatism as it is personal liberty both physically and spiritually.

    Second, It is frightening how often people are unwilling to think with their head and rely on conventional crap that has been spewed from the media.

    Third, Connor is a smart dude. Stop thinking with a “right-wing” opinion of the guy and re-read the post for content.

  7. Doug Bayless
    February 22, 2008 at 10:59 am #

    I’d be interested in the article you tried to link to ((that tries to attack child labor laws I suppose). The link is broken. I’m far more apt to agree with Lindsay on this one and much more suspicious of the motives of the other article.

    Yeah I worked jobs when I was young too. I liked doing it and earned some good money in my free time. I delivered newspapers, collected newspaper and cans to recycle door-to-door, I sold grapefruit on the corner, I bussed tables for $2 an hour plus a share of waitress tips. But the kind of child labor laws Lindsay is referring to didn’t stop me here in the USA and wouldn’t stop children abroad. The kind of child labor laws *needed* in countries we purchase from should be — in my opinion — similar to laws here, with maybe some modifications due to wisdom in seeing abuses by groups like the FLDS.

    I think the larger point is that there are indeed very, very evil organizations which dehumanize whole groups of people to use them as labor. The USA is the #1 customer of these groups and most of these groups are US based. This is wrong, plain and simple. When people say “How could the founding fathers excise that line from the Declaration of Independence blaming King George for the evil human trafficking and then compromise on slave ownership — and even own slaves and slave plantations??” I tend to think “Hmmm, well how can I shop at Walmart?” and it gives it a bit of perspective.

    Modern slavery is, indeed, as Lindsay points out in the article you initially link to (thank you, btw) even more subsersive than our plantation heritage because we are still materially sponsoring it, allowing it, and benefitting from it — but we don’t have to see it, worry about it, or feel guilty about it.

  8. Connor
    February 22, 2008 at 11:11 am #


    The main problem I see with the “slave labor” argument is knowing how accurate the situation is portrayed.

    As an example, consider a company that moves its labor to Bangladesh, since it would be far cheaper to do so. Scores of local workers are hired—people who, quite likely, were either previously working for less, or not at all. These hard working people appreciate the opportunity to provide for their family.

    And yet, we cause a stink back at home because of their long hours, poor working conditions, and low pay. But we rarely consider “that which is not seen” (as Bastiat clarified), which in this case might very well be that these jobs are welcomed and appreciated by those we consider to be exploited and abused.

  9. Doug Bayless
    February 22, 2008 at 11:37 am #

    The Bastiat assertion is well taken (I’ve read that article).

    The problems of the global labor market are nearly innumerable. It is certain that well-meaning people who focus too narrowly on one small piece (like ‘child labor’) could assuredly do more harm than good and that seems to be your point.

    But I wish I knew how to assail the kinds of things that John Perkins lays out in books like
    The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth about Global Corruption

    It just seems like the people who would rather preserve the status quo (and I certainly don’t include you in that group) are much more adept at pointing out our limited understanding and using that as a weapon of discouragement.

  10. Connor
    February 22, 2008 at 11:50 am #

    I suppose that one of the problems along these lines, Doug, is the ability to accurately assess the issue. Many seem to jump the gun and assume all capitalist enterprises that use foreign labor are evil. I’m reminded of a scripture that teaches us:

    Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven. (D&C 123:13)

    The crux of the matter, then, is the ability to first know the issues that we should be exposing (and rejecting). If we discover that Company X is encouraging forced child labor, for example, then we absolutely should refuse to patronize them. However, assuming that “big companies” are all practicing moral evils is naïve in my opinion (though it may very well be true, who knows?). We should try, so far as we’re able, to know what businesses we are supporting (and by corollary, their respective business practices we are likewise supporting) and reject those that are immoral and unethical.

  11. Daniel
    February 22, 2008 at 4:40 pm #

    @ Russell Page: I know Connor is a smart dude. It’s not the dumb ones you have to watch out for. Smart people are incredibly gifted at inventing reasons for very scary things — and getting you to believe them.

    But they do get tripped up in their own contradictions sometimes. Connor claims to be a small government conservative, but check this out:

    Certain things are inherently morally wrong, such as prostitution, as you point out. Labor itself (the moral kind) is the domain of the individual, where he/she can choose what skills to acquire and how to spend his/her time. With cases of immorality, the government has the ability to intervene (such as murder, theft, abuse, etc.).

    Connor says that it’s okay for the state to shut down something if it’s immoral. Wait: if I think it’s immoral? I think child labor is immoral. Apparently not — more on this later. Smoking may be immoral. Some folks think homosexuality’s immoral. Should those things be illegal? Throw adulterers in jail? Far from being ‘small government’, this criterion would give sweeping powers to the state.

    What’s happening is that the poster’s inner amoral sociopath is fighting with his inner moralistic cretin. That can happen.

    And I think I’ve found the initial bad assumption, no extra charge. Look again.

    Certain things are inherently morally wrong, such as prostitution, as you point out.

    Oh, that’s the little meme that’s causing the problem right dere. If certain things were inherently wrong, we could feel okay about shuttin’ them down. But if things were inherently wrong, then we should expect to see every culture reflect the same values. They don’t. There are some general tendencies, but even something like murder sees the rules vary from culture to culture. Morals grow out of the society as people in the society figure out how to live together.

    So while Connor argues that prostitution is wrong inherently, I’d argue that it’s wrong because of my social values and my human feelings like compassion and empathy. But ask someone else, and you’ll get a different answer. Some Japanese schoolgirls happily prostitute themselves for pocket money, with few moral implications that I’m aware of. I don’t think that’s great — in fact, I’m horrified (them’s my values!) — but the society has found a place for it in its moral system. If it were inherently wrong, we should expect every culture to have the same moral views on it. Instead, we see general tendencies, but not worldwide accord.

    This is getting abstract — why does this matter? Let’s review.
    Connor argues for moral absolutes; that certain things are inherently wrong, and that the state should intervene in some of those cases. The problem: whose morality? A hypothetical cabal of moral elites? Or does everyone secretly know what’s inherently moral, but they forget because of wickedness? Does everyone need to get baptised and get the Holy Spirit in order to have world peace? (Can you see why advocating moral absolutes leads to advocating theocracy?)

    My view: Morals evolve within a community. People perceive things to be immoral because they seem unfair, harmful to people, damaging to social cohesion, and so on. My notion of morality will differ from others, and the struggle to see my values reflected in the system is essentially the story of political and social struggle.

    I guess this is a very long way of saying that I see child labour as wrong because I’m putting ‘harm/care’ over ‘individual liberty’ in this case. It’s more important to prevent the (willing) exploitation of children over the rights of companies (and possibly parents) to exploit them. And I’d be willing to use government power to stop this — I think it’s that important. Them’s my values.

    But you may disagree. 🙂

  12. Janet
    February 22, 2008 at 11:48 pm #

    Connor, there is an interesting post on Archana’s blog about this topic from the Indian’s point of view. Child labor is still practiced in India and some of the comments are from people who were subjected to child labor. Here’s the link to her post: http://archanaraghuram.wordpress.com/2007/11/17/child-labor-%e2%80%93-simple-solution/

  13. Naiah
    February 23, 2008 at 9:11 am #

    Why would the answer not be to fight for fair working conditions for children instead of fighting against children working? We fight for standards in the workplace for adults. So, rather than rob those children in poverty of a chance to labor to improve their life, why not advocate for appropriate conditions? For certain these children need an advocate, but not one who by virtue of ebing halfway around the world, woudl kill the patient to cure the disease.

    As Connor has seen in his travel to Africa, there are many, many households in the world headed by chidlren. They have no adult to labor for their income. These children have risen to the moment, and often care for younger siblings. Why condemn them to perpetual hunger or even death by startvation?

    I have read this post, the comments, and even the blog entry linked to in the comment above, and all the while in my mind I see those African kids who need to make a living to feed themselves and their brothers and sisters. I do not want them mistreated in the name of that living, but then again I do not want them denied it either.

    The answer is to advocate for standards.

  14. Curtis
    February 23, 2008 at 10:01 am #

    Aren’t standards in the workplace more of something that socialists stand for rather than libertarian types? Don’t get me wrong, I agree that strict standards in the workplace are a great idea, but I think that libertarians (not me) disagree.

    Do the libertarians in the readership think that strict workplace standards are a good idea? Am I wrong?

  15. Connor
    February 23, 2008 at 10:28 am #

    That entirely depends, Curtis, upon the specific standard being discussed. Some standards that deal with the right to life and liberty are rightly the sphere of government. As an example, it would be proper and lawful for the government to legislate against any type of abuse in the workplace.

    Other types of standards, such as a convenience policies (vacation, wages, sick pay, maternity leave, restroom access, health insurance, etc.) fall outside of government authority (when speaking of proper government, that is) and therefore should be left up to the individual business to determine.

    Humans, when not acting under coercion, have the choice of determining what they would prefer. If one employer offers no lunch break, no restroom access, no holiday pay, and long hours, while another employer offers one of those things, the individual would likely choose to work for the latter. Or, he can choose to work for none.

    Look at Google, for example. People love working there, because that business has chosen to provide for its employees a number of luxuries that entice others to seek employment there. Thus, as the supply of potential employees increase, they can be selective in their hiring process and employ only the best.

    On the other hand, look at any telemarketing call center. They are notorious for having a very high turnover rate. Why? Because the employer offers very little by way of perks and benefits, and thus the employee quickly grows tired of working there, and soon seeks employment elsewhere.

    So, naturally, a person will be attracted to a business that chooses to reward its employees and offer them certain perks. A business that does not do so will have a hard time retaining quality employees.

    While things operate on a lower scale in third world countries, the principle is the same. There are, no doubt, varying businesses that offer different incentives and impose different requirements. The individual is then able to choose among these possibilities and make a conscious decision as to where they would like to work.

  16. Naiah
    February 23, 2008 at 10:58 am #

    Uh, what do libertarians have to do with it? Connor’s not a libertarian; he calls himself a conservative constitutionalist (not that I have the faintest idea of what that is beyond my own extrapolation from the term). Even moreso, he’s an individual. Political affiliation is just a general category, and any thinking human being is going to have a spectrum of opinions that both correlate to and contrast with their ‘party line.’ It all just feels like a detracting smoke screen…

    So all that stuff aside, what kinds of regulations could be advocated? Where do we draw the line? There’s what’s good for the kids, what’s good for the companies, what we can do as comsumers…Look at the issues; leave the personalitites out of it.

  17. Curtis
    February 24, 2008 at 1:39 am #

    Constitutionalist then. My bad. Personalities aside, I think that Constitutionalists believe in keeping government out of the job of making burdensome regulations so that individual liberty can be respected. Thus, I’d be interested to see what Constitutionalists think about collective bargaining, workplace safety standards, minimum wage laws etc.

    You’ve answered my question above with your comment. Thank you. Your example was very clear, and it exemplifies the magical hand of the free market prophesied of by Adam Smith. Unfortunately, this unseen hand is thwarted on all sides by massive corporate welfare and to a smaller degree, by the regulations imposed on companies of the types we’ve been speaking of in this link.

  18. Russell Page
    February 24, 2008 at 1:45 pm #

    @ Daniel

    I don’t see a contradiction at all.

    What Connor is calling immoral in your bolded text is the removal of personal freedom from an individual by force. Murder. Theft. Abuse. Hence, it is perfectly suitable, under its proper role, for the government to protect individual liberty.

    And I find it quite interesting how you’ve touched upon the alarming problem of “moral elites” and yet still finished with saying “It’s more important to prevent the (willing) exploitation of children over the rights of companies (and possibly parents) to exploit them.”

    I hesitate to write that because I don’t want you to feel I am attacking you personally. It’s just an observation. What I want to point out is that this is what causes many of the problems in this country — well intentioned men and women who institute policies and programs (laws) that remove the liberty of one to help another in a manner that does nothing to teach self reliance.

  19. Russell Page
    February 24, 2008 at 1:58 pm #

    @ Curtis

    …. my two cents….

    collective bargaining …
    Productivity should be the standard . . .

    work place safety standards . . .
    good question. I have a hunch what they would say, but I’ll need to read more.

    minimum wage . . .
    they’re against it. 100 percent. it makes about as much sense as a maximum wage.

  20. Daniel
    February 24, 2008 at 5:32 pm #

    I see your point. Connor and I both make our moral systems based on the best values we know. The difference is that he thinks his moral system was handed down by god, and I realise that I made mine up.

  21. Daniel
    February 24, 2008 at 8:44 pm #

    I just noticed this page detailing some of the laws about child labour in the US at present.

    Would Connor or others disagree particularly with any of these laws?

  22. Connor
    February 24, 2008 at 11:32 pm #

    Would Connor or others disagree particularly with any of these laws?

    I disagree with most of them. Price fixing, arbitrary hour limits, all sorts of screwy rules regarding age, field of employment, and such. Leave it up to the parents to monitor their own childrens’ employment activities.

  23. Daniel
    February 24, 2008 at 11:46 pm #


    Well, that might work if everybody had great parents like you and I did, but not everyone does. Some parents might not put their child’s well-being over economic necessity, and corners would be cut. Wouldn’t it be good to have some overarching standards? We might not all like the particulars, but at least we could change them by law.

    I mean, we’re both in favour of laws that make sure children don’t get harmed. I think if it were left to parents, some children would be harmed. We’ve been down this road before.

    Frankly, I find this post baffling. Is it some kind of homework exercise where you try to defend the indefensible?

  24. Doug Bayless
    February 25, 2008 at 3:15 pm #

    I remember all too well a lunch with some of my work colleagues a few years back. I was reading a book that had a brief passage including exploitation of child labor in Britain a couple hundred years ago. The book itself was fictional and I remember being surprised to discover that I was the only one in my lunchgroup that actually believed there had ever been such child labor abuses in Britain (other than in fictional books like the one I was reading lol). I remember trying to figure out which group of us had received the brainwashing.

    That required some research which seems to indicate to me now that not only did the alleged abuses occur but they were dishearteningly common even in areas of our own country.

    Historical revisionism is indeed perpetrated by all stripes of the political spectrum, but I’m still intrigued by this one. What cornerstone of “conservative reading” have I totally missed wherein so many of my colleagues seem to have accepted the idea that “child labor laws” are unnecessary and even “bad” so unquestioningly?

    I believe in encouraging parent and family rights but not to the point that bad parents [or parents in bad circumstances, or parents who are pressured by other bad people, etc.] are allowed to infringe upon and curtail lives in the frightening ways that we have seen are so prevalent when there are no laws of consequence on this subject.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.