On Child Labour
Factories in Bangladesh employed children to make shirts for Walmart, the USA giant retailer. Their plight was shown on US TV. There was an outcry against child labour, the shirts made by the children were boycotted, sales of other goods made by children plummeted, and laws were enacted to prevent entry to the USA by goods made by children. The result? The factories closed, and the children were dismissed. Now, instead of earning a pittance, they have no money. The 'cure' was worse than the problem. (BBC Radio 4 (UK) has just run a report about child labour in Bangladesh, in advance of World Trade Organization discussions on the topic.)
The problem of child labour is complex and intertwined. For example, some children found they were now free to go to school - possibly a beneficial result. For example, some children earned nothing, not even a pittance, except their food and keep. For example, some 'factories' are perhaps small family-owned businesses. But let us leave these complexities aside for a moment, not forget them, but focus on the central issues, and then come back to them.
A larger complexity is "Well, they live in a different culture, so how they live is their business, not ours." Valid statement. But not very helpful in helping us decide what to do. We are all humanity, and all ultimately under God. So, we must try to discern those issues that cut across, and apply in, all cultures. That is what I hope this discussion will do.
It seems to me that there are four basic misconceptions that we - especially we in the West - have:
- The first real problem of child labour is not a the number of years lived by someone; rather, it is an attitude (e.g. by Walmart and by some of the Bangladesh factory owners) that seeks to get as much as possible for oneself, and often at the expense of others.
- We look too much at the outward actions, and too little at the attitude. What appears to be exploitation might, in special circumstances, be the right thing; but an attitude of exploitation leads to exploitative activity across a range of circumstances.
- A related problem is that we too readily seek to measure things in numerical terms. We in the West are appalled at the low wages that some people receive in some countries. We are appalled at the idea that human beings below a certain age should be 'exploited', forgetting that exploitation itself is wrong.
- Another related problem is that we try to use law to manage what is essentially an ethical matter, and ultimately that does not work, whatever might be its short-term benefits. This invokes a vicious circle: because law requires clear decisions, and fundamentally cannot deal with attitudes, it is forced to speak only about outward actions and to resort to precise numeric measures.