The Limited Challenge to Child Labor
by Vijay Prashad
Dollars and Sense magazine Sept/Oct 1999
On June 16, President Clinton stood before the International
Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva and declared that "we
must wipe from the Earth the most vicious forms of abusive child
labor. We must not a human face on the global economy, giving
working people everywhere a stake in its success."
Two days later, the ILO finalized a new convention on the
"worst forms of child labor," one that the U.S. President
promised to guide through Congress. The convention targets, not
all 250 million child laborers (under the age of 15) worldwide,
but "all forms of slavery [of children], forced or compulsory
labor, debt bondage and serfdom," child prostitution, and
the use of children in the drug trade.
Clinton's qualified statement against the worst forms of child
labor sounds like a coded way of telling us the United States
is not opposed to the practice per se, but only to the "worst
forms" targeted in this convention by the ILO. He promises
not abolition, but amelioration.
Yet it is not at all clear that the policies of the U.S. government,
taken as a whole, will deliver even that. In June, Clinton signed
an executive order preventing the U.S. government from purchasing
goods made by the "worst forms" of child labor -but
then exempted goods from Mexico and countries that are members
of the World Trade Organization.
Or take the example of Bangladesh, where 20% of the workforce-some
6.5 million laborers - are children. In 1994, the Bangladesh Garment
and Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) agreed to
eliminate child labor in its factories in the face of U.S. pressure.
That pressure grew after NBC's Dateline aired a segment in 1993
on modern forms of slavery, including child labor in South Asia.
After thousands of young children left the factories with no safety
net to catch them, the U.S. government pressured the Bangladesh
garment association to reverse its decision. In July 1995, the
association and the United States signed a memorandum in which
the employers agreed to retain the child workers and to create
schools for them, but to refuse to hire any more. Meanwhile, the
United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which
controls short term loans to governments, were forcing the Bangladeshi
government to reduce expenditures on health and education.
The United States may formally oppose child labor, but by
pressing for austerity-especially in provision for basic needs,
the lance-point of the new global economy-it just as surely consigns
children to the workshops and the fields.
And by isolating out some children to be "saved,"
the United States and opponents of child labor implicitly suggest
the abject poverty of the children's parents is acceptable.
THE WILL TO REGULATE
The special abhorrence to child labor was fed, historically,
by the campaign against it in Victorian England. During the Industrial
Revolution, English children worked in large numbers within factories
while Indian children worked in English-owned mills in Bombay.
Government action was instrumental in preventing, as Karl Marx
wrote, "the coining of children's blood into capital."
Children were rescued from the factories, not primarily in response
to the onrush of liberal sentiment, argue scholars like Douglas
Galbi, but because of the technological need for skilled adult
labor instead of their unskilled toil. This shift set the stage
for government regulation against child labor. In the United States,
it was encoded in federal law only during the Great Depression,
making an exception for agricultural labor that continues to this
Few places now allow children (en masse) to work in industrial
factories. But child labor is epidemic in agriculture and in artisanal
production. The monotonous tasks of the field and the small workshop
still can, and do, call upon young hands, since there are few
technical skills required for the harvesting of fruit or the knotting
of carpets. In India, where 11 million children work, the use
of young girls in agricultural production is on the increase,
according to the All-India Democratic Women's Association, as
is the global use of children in the apparel industry. According
to a recent U.S. Department of Labor report, children make fireworks
in Peru, Mexico, and the Philippines. In Mexico, children work
in garment and footwear factories. In Nepal, India, and Pakistan,
children hand-knot carpets.
In India and other South Asian countries, tens of millions
of children are working mostly in export-oriented industries (carpets,
diamonds, glassware, footwear) and tourist services (including
sex work) owned by local elites. Their labor, then, supports sectors
tied to the global economy and is not a remnant of some older,
agrarian order. It is a modern business practice, especially within
nations committed to fulfilling IMF terms to cutback government
Child labor is formally illegal in some sectors in India while
the practice is endemic. The Indian government has given up the
power to act, allowing business interests to dominate the logic
of what government action-or inaction-remains.
Governments also have lost whatever independence they once
had in regulating capital's thirst for profit. When Indian economic
policy came under the direction of the IMF in 1991, the government
slashed social spending- especially subsidies on food, health,
and education-and made every effort to increase exports. Both
policies fueled an epidemic of child labor. Of course, the IMF
did not create child labor, but its economic policies have exacerbated
the use of children in economically strategic export industries.
To finance their foreign debt, many Asian governments, including
India, Bangladesh, and Thailand, have, at the behest of international
finance and the IMF, bent their economies at all costs to export,
earning foreign exchange for the repayment of debt to the richest
countries. These export industries have a voracious appetite for
cheap labor and in most cases, they rely upon the toil of children.
As active as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been
in bringing the issue of child labor to the public conscience,
many seem wary of confronting the IMF and U.S.-backed structural
adjustment policies. Some, such as Free the Children, recognize
the problem of debt, but focus their efforts on reforming individual
companies and international law. Without a genuine recognition
of the integral role the IMF and other enforcers of the international
debt regime play in the economic destiny of most peoples in the
world, those who call for an end to child labor act in bad faith.
In 1997, the World Bank (a sibling of the IMF that provides
long-term loans to developing countries) found that it lent money
to the Indian silk industry where many children work. The next
year, the Bank hired an official to ensure that it does not lend
to businesses that use children on the work force. While this
story made good press, the appointment of one official is but
a token gesture from an institution whose overall budget-cutting
sentiments are destroying educational institutions and other social
services in the areas afflicted with child labor.
EDUCATION, NOT BOMBS
Education's benefits for children, their families, and for
poor countries are mammoth compared to the meager income child
labor brings to a family and the deformed growth it adds to the
national account books. The U.S. Department of Labor, NGOs, and
the left all agree that compulsory education truly enforced by
governments is a powerful avenue for ending child labor.
Research by Sophie Labenne of the Universiti de Namur in Belgium
shows that child labor in India does not contribute a vast sum
to the family fund. On the contrary, most families seem to send
their children out to work in order to maximize family income
rather than to ensure basic survival. But that doesn't mean the
family could afford to pay for their child's education. Most parents
of child workers want their children to be educated, other researchers
have found, but find public schooling to be out of their reach.
In many places, they must pay for tuition, books, uniforms, lunch
Despite the wide agreement about the power of schooling, few
governments pledge to enact or enforce compulsory education laws.
India does not have one. Where laws are on the books, countries
fail to provide the funding that would make primary education
possible for poor families, a fact the United States and the IMF
have done nothing to counteract. While the IMF routinely puts
pressure on poor countries to cut back on social services, it
seems to do little to promote cuts in weapons purchases. Pakistan,
India, much of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America spend an outlandish
amount of foreign exchange on weapons-Pakistan spends six times
more on weapons than on primary education, India twice as much.
This is not surprising considering who supplies these weapons-the
United States by itself controls more than 50% of the weapons
market, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute.
CHILDREN DEMAND TO BE SCHOOLED
In contrast, the Indian communist left, trade unions and NGOs
that are not indebted to foreign donors challenge neoliberalism
directly by demanding schooling and more. In Chennai, the Campaign
against Child Labour held a conference in December 1994 at which
over a thousand child workers participated. The youth demanded
access to education "near our houses," free books and
uniforms, an "interesting" education, jobs for their
parents (who struggle with debt), and daycare for their siblings.
In the meantime they hoped for some rights in the workplace- some
form of unionization as an interim measure. The conference did
not go into unionization in any detail; how can 7- to 10-year-olds
really form an independent union that will stand up against the
armed might of the employers? One need not put much faith in such
a strategy. Indeed, there are only a handful of such child labor
unions. Nevertheless, it shows that these young people at the
very least are able to think structurally and not rely upon stunts
that alleviate our conscience rather than address the problems
that produce child labor.
The 1994 Chennai document ended with the demand that "elders,
teachers, parents and the Government must do something to stop
us from working and send us to school." It puts the abolition
of child labor and the enactment of compulsory education at the
forefront. As Vasuki of the All India Democratic Women's Association
put it, "this is a deep-rooted problem and must be tackled
from different angles at the same time."
Even the United States is not exempt. Here, of the hundreds
of thousands of children who work beside their farmworker parents,
63% never complete the minimum years of schooling required. The
U.S. government, meanwhile, has yet to ratify ILO Convention 138,
which bans work during compulsory school years, or before children
are 14 or 15 years old.
In the Philippines, we have seen the development of puaralang
loayans (community schools) that provide literacy to children
who scavenge in the trash. In Peru, Gente del Maqana offers a
free meal, for which children must attend their courses. In May,
the Norwegian Goldsmiths' Association and the Norwegian Confederation
of Trade Unions opened classrooms for 150 children in the Indian
diamond industry, giving their parents a modest stipend for them
These are among the varied techniques used to provide education
for the youth. Some like the All-India Democratic Women's Association
are frustrated by band-aids, and turn their sights on organizing
parents and children to defend the welfare state against the international
regime of debt and disorder that perpetuates child labor. The
future seems to be in that struggle.
Child labor is abhorrent and we must conceptualize ways to
abolish it. However, the tendency to concentrate on the woes of
children seems to imply that the exploitation of adults is normal.
We hear that children are in poverty and we are asked to grieve;
poverty for adults is fine! It is an implicit submission to the
dogma of "personal responsibility"-children have no
choice, but adults do have a choice.
In fact, all sorts of hyper-exploited labor are on the rise
in the Age of Free Trade. There are only superficial differences
between maquiladora labor, sweatshop labor, prison labor, outsourced
work, and child labor. These forms of cheap labor provide most
Third World nations with the capacity to produce export goods
for a Euro-American market committed to cheap prices (in Wal-Mart,
Refusing to split apart the "special" question of
child labor from exploitation in general may be the key which
unlocks the child labor issue-placing the onus not on the aberration
of exploiting children, but on a world system which makes this
and other forms of hyper-exploitation all too typical. In this
age of lifeboat ethics, policy-makers decide with cold calculation
who is to be saved and who is to be sacrificed. It may be expedient
for them to declare that children will be saved (while others
are sacrificed). The problem, however, is less who is to be saved
immediately than the shameful paucity of boats being sent to the
rescue at all.
Vijay Prashad is a member of the Forum of Indian Leftists
and teaches international studies at Trinity College in Hartford.
and death in Third World