There has been much argument about what causes child labour. For some it’s the depredations of The Man insisting that the poor scurry for their crusts. Others have noted – in much argued about observations – that regulations against child labour can actually increase the incidence of it.
The big question is, well, what is the underlying cause of children working instead of being in school? If it’s the oppressions of capitalism then regulation might well do something to minimise at least the problem. If it’s in fact about just basic and absolute poverty then regulations won’t.
Myself I go with the poverty reason. Imagine a world in which the very sustenance necessary to be able to get up each day is scarce. This is something which is true for at least 700 million of our fellows out there. Child labour might produce very little in terms of output and therefore income. But the family unit might still need that mite in order for the group as a whole to survive.
If this is true then regulation against child labour could increase the amount of it. Making the child labour illegal means that those who really just still have to do it are working illegally. And it’s not exactly a grand logical leap to the conclusion that illegal labour will be paid less than legal such.
There was a paper describing India’s situation which made this argument. There have been vociferous arguments against that paper, including allegations that it made dreadful mistakes. Peru actually removed some of the illegality of certain forms of child labour on exactly this argument.
For if the child labour is paid less per hour or unit of work then more children must go to work for longer hours in order to make that necessary minimum for the family to survive. Subsistence labour is likely to be subject to the income effect after all.
It’s an important point. At which point Human Rights Watch tells us that child labour has increased this past year for the obvious reason of the epidemic:
Gopal Magar’s father has had a drinking problem for as long as he can remember, but when Kathmandu went into lockdown last spring, it got worse. With five members of his family confined to a small room in the south of the city, tempers frayed and the 14-year-old saw his father beat his mother again and again. One day Gopal could stand it no longer. He fought back, and then fled, leaving his parents, and his school, behind.
Gopal now lives with his older brother on the other side of the city, and has swapped his classroom for a construction site. “I have fewer problems now, but I need to work really hard,” he says. He starts work at six in the morning and for the next 12 hours hauls sand, loads bricks and mixes concrete. He earns about £7 a day and sends some of it to his mother to help her buy food and pay the rent.
Well, there are certain problems with this story. £7 a day in a country where GDP per capita is just over $1,000 a year? You mean he’s making 2.5 times GDP per capita? In relative terms to the UK, on £60 to £70 grand? And 14 years old? It wasn’t until the 1944 Education Act that the UK raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. Heck, it was only in 1918 that it was raised to 14.
No, I do not say that waifs should righteously be stuck up chimneys. But the UK was considerably, very much, richer than Nepal is now when it made these changes. Something important if we are to start to consider whether child labour is a result of poverty.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, countries around the globe had made remarkable progress in reducing child labor. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the number of children in child labor decreased by approximately 94 million between 2000 and 2016, representing a drop of 38 percent. But as the pandemic caused massive school closures and unprecedented loss of jobs and income for millions of families, many children have entered the workforce to help their families survive, while others have been forced to work longer hours or enter more precarious and exploitative situations. Some have become their families’ primary breadwinners after losing a caregiver to Covid-19. Some despair of ever going back to school.
Poverty increases, child labour increases. This is not some ghastly neoliberal like myself claiming this, this is Human Rights Watch.
OK, excellent, we’ve now diagnosed the cause of the problem. It is gaping, sore wound, poverty that causes child labour. The answer to child labour is therefore not regulation – which might increase the incidence of it – but solving that gaping, sore wound, poverty. Fortunately we know how to do that, as the past 40 years has shown. Capitalism, free markets and globalisation red in tooth and claw.
After all, that is what stopped us putting waifs up chimneys and what works for white folks also works for those browner and darker in other places. We are, after all, all human and the same under that skin, subject to the same economic incentives. Sure, all parents want their kids to go to school, to be educated, to have a better life. But that does rather require that there’s enough food around for them to have a life at all. Something which isn’t true for all too many out there which is the actual problem that needs to be solved.
Rich people don’t send their kids out to work they send them to school. The solution to child labour is thus for folks to become rich.