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 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 day.

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 programs.

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'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 and transportation.

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.


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 to attend.

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, etc.).

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.

Life and death in Third World