In England, a child below the age of 13 is prohibited from working and young persons must be in part-time education or training until they’re 18. Most developing countries do not have laws against the employment of children, and the idea of children working in textile mills to produce clothes for fashion conscious Western teenagers grates the conscience. Often reports of the use of child labour is conflated with stories of sweatshops with slave-like conditions and elicits an emotional urge to help these children reclaim their lost childhood.
In the West, the issue is often presented as a choice between work or education. ‘Children should work in school and not in factories’, it says on the charity Oxfam’s website. But in a dirt-poor shanty-town on the outskirts of Freetown or in a Bangalore slum, the alternative to factory work is obviously not school. Children are sent by their parents to work because the family is maintaining a subsistence on or below the poverty line and the alternative to working is starvation, not education. Parents make such choices based on necessity. The notion that poor people somehow do not have the best interest of their children at heart should be obviously false to everyone. If starvation is to be avoided, the alternative to factory work may be prostitution or stealing, hardly attractive options. Western observers seem blind to this reality, instead imagining some Dickensian caricature of a scrupulous businessman cracking the whip over the backs of terrified youngsters. Certainly, plentiful examples exist of scrupulous employers forcing children to work through intimidation and dependency. But the problem here is not child labour per se, but the use of intimidation and manipulation of susceptible minds, which should be a crime no matter what the age of the victim.
In short, child labour is a necessary evil that is the result of poverty and the only way to make child labour obsolete is economic progress brought on by capitalism and free enterprise as has been the case in the West. Child labour laws do not alleviate poverty, they only serve to magnify the problem. Perversely, such laws may serve to lower the wages of children, as employers compensates for the risk of fines or other penalties, should they be caught.
In the West, child labour laws serve mainly to prevent children from supplementing their pocket money, as very few parents have the need or inclination to send their kids off to the mines aged 9. Labour unions have been at the forefront of campaigns to ban children from working, naturally concerned that this cheap source of labour should undercut their members’ wages. But preventing children from working is not an act of benevolence, nor is the argument against child labour laws based on a desire for child cruelty. Was the Obama administration cruel when it scrapped a proposed crackdown on children working on farms? Did they fail to save children from their parents exploiting them for economic gains? Or did they accept the rural community’s concerns over erosion of traditional family values and ‘the rural way of life’?
Child labour is nothing new. Throughout history, working from a young age has been the norm, not the exception. Modern day capitalist, industrialized economies are the first societies offering the average child the prospect of a childhood with a focus on education and play, not hard graft. As with all problems of poverty, the only effective, sustainable solution is economic progress, achieved through free markets and an entrepreneurial economy. Capitalism and free enterprise is what has made child labour largely obsolete in the West, not legislation.