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Monday, February 21, 2011

Child labour: a double edged sword?

An increasing number of businesses today expand internationally and enter developing countries. In many developing countries, child labour is a prominent social issue. Thus, multinational businesses may actually contribute to the occurrence of child labour if they don’t use their power to help mitigate the problems associated with it. Aside from the accompanying moral issues, companies should be concerned about child labour because if they are found to be involved, their reputation will be severely damaged. This occurred, for example, when Nike was accused of using child labour in the production of its soccer balls in Pakistan.

Protests about child labour often resemble UNICEF’s outcries in this excerpt:
 “Children who are compelled to work are robbed of childhood itself,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said today on the International Day Against Child Labour. “The majority of child labourers are hidden from view and beyond the reach of the law. Many of them are denied basic health care, education, adequate nutrition, and the protection and security of their
 communities and families.” 
A company worrying solely about the protests of its customers might respond by ensuring that children are not employed in any parts of the company. But is this necessarily what’s best? Banning child labour may have short-term costs for the very poor. Education is not always affordable. Sometimes it is necessary for kids to help out to ensure they can eat. Following this, if companies force children to leave, they may just end up involved in more hazardous work. Also, by reducing employment options, child labour wages elsewhere will decline. So is child labour necessarily bad? Research tells us that not all forms are bad. Some jobs, such as newspaper delivery, babysitting or farm work, teach punctuality and discipline, for instance. So, a company that is concerned about both the consumers and the children may instead address the issue by changing the nature of the work. For example, they can adjust working hours for the children, support a legislation protecting the labour rights of children, and promote the development of the children’s skills.

Of course, multinationals can also benefit poor populations without the use of child labour. Research shows that the worst forms of child labour (ex those causing psychological and physical distress) can be decreased by poverty alleviation, and that income opportunities influence parents’ decisions to send their children to school or work. Multinationals entering developing areas can create jobs for people and reduce their need for child labour. This can also benefit companies who gain access untapped markets by tailoring products to the physical and economic needs of a poorer population.

Unfortunately, providing more jobs may not be sufficient for eradicating child labour, so it may also be necessary for companies to explore the use of moral child labour. Alas, while this may benefit poor citizens, consumers who do not fully understand the situation will still accuse companies of exploitation. Personally, I believe that companies should employ moral use of child labour when it is the best or only option for families. Repercussions due to angry customers should be dealt with by educating them. For example, the company could publish a document explaining the situations in which child labour is the safest and most beneficial option for families. The document could also discuss how families will be screened in the hiring process, to determine whether the children should work or be encouraged to attend school.

Do you consider child labour to be a double edged sword, or do you think that we should help very poor families survive while avoiding child labour altogether?

GlassFrog blogger, Sherisse

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