Commentary

Child Labor or Child Prostitution?

By Thomas R. DeGregori
October 8, 2002

I am against child labor as are the vast majority of Americans. That is why I have been involved in economic development in developing areas, because it is clear that technological and economic change are vital ingredients in getting children out of the workplace and into schools. Then they can grow to become productive adults and live longer, healthier lives. However, in poor countries like Bangladesh, working children are essential for survival in many families, as they were in our own heritage until the late 19th century. So, while the struggle to end child labor is necessary, getting there often requires taking different routes — and, sadly, there are many political obstacles, especially from radical environmentalists and anti-globalization activists.

Many of the most vociferous campaigners against child labor in developing countries have a long history of attacking technological advances, e.g., genetically modified crops, and economic policies that can liberate children from the necessity of working. (For example, the anti-globalization Campaign for the Abolition of Sweatshops & Child Labor started its 10-city tour on Sept. 24.) Such advances have taken more children out of the fields and into the classrooms than any activist campaigns.

Yet proposed U.S. legislation against the importation of textiles produced by child labor — to “protect” children from exploitation and promote their education — has had a devastating effect in Bangladesh, especially on the lives of those for whom it was designed to protect. I lived in Bangladesh in 1988 when raw jute was still the leading export. Children were begging in the streets, engaging in prostitution and other crimes, or doing hard labor. The rapid expansion of the garment industry created better paid, less arduous jobs for children. Though far from ideal, those jobs were vastly superior to what the children had previously. And they were far better than what the kids were forced to return to when, as a result of pressure from the United States, the children were fired by the garment industry. The one place that they did not end up was in school. Thanks to U.S. pressure, many children went back to prostitution and other dangerous behavior.

Certainly no institution has more credibility in defense of children than UNICEF. The authors of the UNICEF-sponsored volume “What Works for Working Children,” found that for children in the Bangladesh garment industry, work was “less hazardous, more financially lucrative, and with more prospects for advancement than almost all other forms of employment open to children.” UNICEF added that boycotts “run into the problem of not being able to distinguish between good and bad working situations for children.” UNICEF is particularly critical of using child labor as an excuse for protectionists’ import bans, such as those that have been promoted against Bangladesh.

The UNICEF study concluded “it is difficult to find much that is praiseworthy, from the standpoint of a child-centered approach to child work, in a unilateral import ban,” and action that is on the stated agenda of those in the current campaign. Without transition programs and provision of means of income replacement, most campaigns to ban imports of garments produced by child labor will make the children and their families worse off than before. Transition programs require resources that poor countries simply do not have. And to impose this impossible burden on them in the name of defending the rights of children would appear to many of us to be an undisguised form of protectionism: offering protection to a domestic industry and not to impoverished children. There are enough instances of abusive child labor practices around the world that a carefully targeted campaign to improve working conditions might be helpful, but not to the protectionist groups that often back indiscriminate bans on child labor imports.

Developing countries increasingly see calls for bans on child labor, or protection of the environment, or for protection of a rural way of life in developed countries as economic protectionism. It is clear from the street battles of Seattle that those who claim to defend the poor may in fact be the worst enemy of the poor. Too often the activists’ financial backers have no such illusions, as they are promoting their own protectionist agenda. As “transparency” has become a legitimate demand for all institutions, it may well be a legitimate demand for the anti-technology troops.

Thomas R. DeGregori is professor of Economics at the University of Houston and the author of two recently released books, Bountiful Harvest (Cato Institute, 2002), upon which this article is based, andThe Environment, Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology (Iowa State University Press, 2002).