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Debate: Using sanctions to end child labor

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Are sanctions on states the best way to end child labour?

Background and context

In 2005, there were 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 who worked. Roughly 120 million of these work full-time and many are exploited to the detriment of their physical, moral and intellectual development.[1]

In the past activists have tried to encourage consumers to boycott companies using child labour by means of negative publicity about the conditions under which children work. The debate is partly, therefore, about whether such action (which may be ignored) is sufficient to force companies themselves to act, or whether it is more effective to use sanctions to pressurise governments into setting up national legal regulations (which might be avoided or repealed). However, there is a second issue: whilst it is normally deemed a truism that child labour is inherently bad, a subtler reasoning is sometimes illuminating. It is hard to see how child labour on family farms can be avoided, when countries do not have the resources to set up schools and to pay families a minimum income. Ultimately child labour ends up more as a question of solving poverty than a simple moral or emotional issue.A model for a sanctions regime would need to take several details into account: both general ones regarding sanctions cases (by whom will sanctions be imposed? And to what extent will they be enforced?) and questions particular to this topic: what age is a ‘child’? Is child labour inherently a issue, or is the debate really about minimum labour standards for any employee?

Contents

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Urgency: Are child labor abuses a serious problem?

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Yes

  • It is a duty to end child labor to defend access to education. This can only be done with the independence gained from education, a good quality of life and independent income. Child labour destroys the creativity and innocence of the young, and must be stopped.
  • Ending child labor takes precedent over international trade. It means that the international community can and should place child labor concerns above the interests of free trade. The world was able to do this in the cases of South Africa and Burma - so why not here?[2]
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No

  • Many children have to work to pay for school. The idea of labouring children entering school is belied by evidence showing many either cannot afford to pay school fees or continue to work at the same time. In fact, many TNCs have now set up after-work schools within the very factories that activists criticise.
  • Early exposure to work can give experience and perpsective to children. Assuming that a working environment is not abusive, understanding the role of work early in life can be an important lesson to young people. It can provide a child a better understanding of their future and the importance of education in that future. Generally, it can be a good reality check. It can also help teach children the value of money at an early age. While this should not be done at the expense of education, safety, and dignity, it can be a good compliment to the intellectual development of children.
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Impact: Will sanctions have the desired impact, pressuring countries to liberalize their labor laws?

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Yes

  • Sanctions are the most effective way to pressure change on social and economic issues: Whilst codes of ‘human rights’ are effective bases for enforcing political and legal standards, they are less effective in dealing with social and economic ones. It is realistic to use sanctions to enforce rights to free expression and the rule of law; impossible to force an impoverished state to maintain Western standards of education and labour laws, which did not exist when the West developed. This use of sanctions merely lessens their impact when used for the correct purposes.
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No

  • Most sanctions are focused narrowly on the export sector:According to the U.S. Department of Labor;only 5 percent are actually involved in activities that have some connection with the global economy. Working conditions for children in many non-export sectors are far worse, but sanctions are not designed to target them. To the contrary, sanctions can force children into these sectors. This is clearly not a progress toward liberalization of labor system.[3]
  • Placing sanctions on some companies will merely shift child labour underground: Moving children, who have to work from poverty, into unregulated and criminal areas of the economy will only worsen the situation. Is it really likely that the WTO, a bastion of free trade, would accept the restrictions that sanctions entail?[4]
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Negatives of sanctions: Are the negative results of sanctions, such as the impact being passed onto the general population, insignificant or manageable?

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Yes

  • Mitigating the effects of sanctions on populations can be achieved by targeting them in certain ways:
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No

  • Sanctions typically harm the poorest in societies: - Companies will simply move to areas where the restrictions do not apply. Past experience has shown that government interference with the market does more harm than good.
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Consumer pressure: Is consumer pressure an inadequate tool relative to sanctions in combating child labor abuses?

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Yes

  • Consumer pressure is too weak to force change on social and economic issues: - Whilst opinion pollsters are told their interviewees are willing to pay more for ethical products, very few people put this into daily practice.
"An American opinion survey in 1995 found that 78% of those polled would avoid shopping in a store that sold garments made with sweatshop labour, and that they would pay a dollar more on a $20 item for a guarantee that the product came from a worker-friendly supplier." ["The power of publicity", The Economist, December 1998]
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No

  • Consumer power has proven highly effective in the past in forcing trans-national companies to institute ethical practices: Boycotts of one producer lead others to act out of fear of negative publicity - the market takes care of the problem itself.

See also

External links and resources

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