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Debate: Countries should ban the import of goods produced by child labor

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This House believes that countries should ban the import of goods produced by child labor

Background and context


Morality: Is child labor immoral? Would the ban ameliorate the moral issue?


  • 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.
  • Child labour equals exploitation. Exporters, owners of factories, multinational companies, and other wealthy actors benefit from child labour, as they are - mostly thanks to inadequate or non-existent legislation - free to exploit children in poor countries. This is inconsistent with our "Western" values, Convention on the Rights of the Child, etc.
  • Even indirect support of child labour is immoral. By buying cheap shoes and clothes we are hypocritically turning a blind eye to child trafficking, slave labour, torture of children, and taking their childhood away.
  • Right incentives. The ban gives the right incentives, as export-oriented companies will have to sack child workers and hire adults instead. This is consistent with our "western" moral stands.


  • Child labour is deeply rooted in certain cultures. In some countries it is common that children do work and it is perceived rather as their duty, instead of some kind of "immoral entrepreneurship".
"It is not uncommon to find a child working alongside his father in the mines. Mining is often a family tradition, generations having worked the same mines in Cerro Rico [Bolivia]. (...) In the Cerro Rico mines the cycle of working early in life and dying young constantly renews itself." ["Mining Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia; Bolivia Mining Conditions and Child Labor in the Potosi Mines", by Tony Dunnell, July 2009]
  • The ban is short-sighted. If we impose the ban, we hypocritically satisfy our "morality", but - at the same time - we cut off an important source of income for poor families, thus exacerbating their suffering. That is certainly not moral.
  • Ban on exports is harmful. "It is also argued that child labour in poor countries imposes emotional costs on rich-country consumers who find this offensive, and is thus another cross-border side-effect. If so, the rich would do better to send the children aid rather than impose harmful trade sanctions." ["The standard question", The Economist, January 2000]

Urgency to act: Is child labour a problem?


  • Child labour is a severe problem. "Every year, 22 000 children die in work-related accidents." ["Facts on Child Labour", International Labour Organization, June 2005]
  • Child labour worsens the status quo, thus has to be stopped. "Child labour lowers the perceived cost of having children, thereby boosting fertility. Larger family size in turn fuels the need for the income provided by children, generates child labour supply and impedes the education of the future generation of parents. Since parent's lack of education is one of the most important determinants of high fertility, large families needing the income from child labour perpetuate over time." ["The Economic Impact of Child Labour", by Rossanna Galli, University of Lugano, 2001]
  • Child labour is hamrful. Child labour negatively affects children's health (respiratory diseases, injuries in factories...), which leads to negative long-term consequences. Firstly, it decreases life expectancy of these children, secondly, it decreases their productivity in adulthood, and thirdly, it prevents children from education.
  • Multinationals exploit children. "Nike, for example, has been accused of using child labour in Cambodia; Adidas of using prison labour in China; Benetton of using child workers in Turkey." ["Sweating for fashion", The Economist, March 2004]


  • Child labour is a solution to poverty, although short-term. "A survey states that 70 percent of child laborers in Bangladesh are members of landless and floating families. The incomes of 5 percent of these children are the only support for their families, especially for their single-parent families..." ["Child Labor in Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program", Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999, by Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, Rasheda Khanam, Nur Uddin Absar]
  • Stopping child labour causes no good. "Stopping child labor without doing anything else could leave children worse off. If they are working out of necessity, as most are, stopping them could force them into prostitution or other employment with greater personal dangers. The most important thing is that they be in school and receive the education to help them leave poverty." "The Morality of Child Labor", by Dr. Sam Vaknin
  • The problem is minuscule. "Only 1 in every 200 000 (0,0005%) economically active children in the world, aged 10 to 14, are employed and only two countries in the world go above 1 in 10 000 (0,01%). Of that tiny fraction only 12% of total working children [approx. 15 million] in developing countries are employed in exporting companies and they have higher wages than those 88% involved in domestic production." ["Child labour", Eric Edmons, NBER Working Paper 12926, 2007. In Guillermo de la Dehesa, "Are developing countries engaging in "social dumping"?", May 2004, CPER/]

Effectivity: Would the ban be effective?


  • The ban in enforceable. Given that developing countries mostly export to developed countries, if the developed world imposes the ban, its enforceability does not depend on weak/corrupt LDC governments.
  • The ban can succeed. "...a UNICEF initiative to get the hotel owners' association to agree to refrain from hiring children, and her own organization's campaign to get 4 000 housing societies to certify that no children were working in homes, as examples of success of the ban. "Overall, 19 000 children were rescued during the last year in Mumbai..."" ["Can India Save its Working Children?", by Shelley Seale, Human Rights Defence]
  • Ban addresses some of the causes of child labour. "Adult unemployment and urbanization also causes child labor. Adults often find it difficult to find jobs because factory owners find it more beneficial to employ children at cheap rates. This exploitation is particularly visible in garment factories of urban areas." [1]
  • 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.
  • There is a political will. There have already been successful measures taken, such as the Memorandum of Understanding, signed in July 1995 by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the UNICEF, and the ILO. Some of the key provisions include: Removal of all under-age workers (those below 14) within a period of 4 months, no further hiring of under-age children, etc. ["The State of the World's Children 1997", UNICEF]
  • Laws of supply and demand. If we cut off demand for child labour products, we in effect decrease the quantity of these products supplied, as it no longer pays off to produce them (at least for exports).
  • Child labour is economically ineffective. According to ILO study "Investing in Every Child", we lose up to 314,1 billion dollars every year on implicit costs of harms caused by child labour. However, with higher education for these children, up to 253.9 billion dollars could be gained.
The global net opportunity cost of eradicating child labour (2000-2020): 246,8 billion dollars, whereas the global net economic benefits of eradicating child labour (2000-2020): 4 346,1 billion dollars.


  • Laws concerning child labour are unenforceable. "India has laws in place to protect children and bans the use of young workers, but they remain pretty ineffective." ["Child labour - India's 'cheap commodity'", BBC, by Navdip Dhariwal, June 2006]
    • Existing legislation is poorly implemented. "...despite the under-14 ban, thousands of children are still employed in hazardous industries listed in the Act, thanks to poor implementation of the existing legislation." ["Child Labour in India", by Joseph Gathia, June 2008]
"Factories usually find loopholes and circumvent the law by declaring that the child laborer is a distant family member." "Child Labour in India"
  • There are many causes of child labour, ban on exports does not solve them. "Some common causes of child labor are poverty, parental illiteracy, social apathy, ignorance, lack of education and exposure, exploitation of cheap and unorganized labor." [2]
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Ban on exports does not make sense. "The case for a ban on child labor in the export goods sector alone (...) is weaker, since this could result in children being diverted to less desirable or more hazardous work. In general, it is better to take economy-wide measures against child labor and, if there is to be a sector-specific ban, this should be based on the working conditions of that sector, rather than the destination of the goods." ["Child Labor: Cause, Consequence, and Cure, with Remarks on International Labor Standards" by American Economic Association, 1999]
  • The more demand there is, the more children work. It is the demand for labour that determines how many children work; not ban on exports. "Families in Nicaragua appear to take advantage of a temporary surge in coffee prices by having their children work more." ["Coffee production effects on child labor and schooling in rural Brazil", Journal of Development Economics 82: 448-463, by Diane Kruger, 2007]

Jobs for children: Should children be prevented from working in export-oriented industries?


  • Children will not carry out more dangerous jobs. Given that child labour is defined as hard work detrimental to health or preventing children below the age of 14 from education (according to the ILO), it is highly unlikely that these children will move to more dangerous occupations. It is improbable that they will become prostitutes, as there is almost no demand for sexual services from such young girls/boys and in most poor countries any prostitution is intolerable. Besides, work in households is much less hazardous than - for example - working in mines or factories.


  • More dangerous jobs. By banning export of goods produced by child labour we give direct incentives to employers to sack these children. They have to move to non-export less well-paid jobs (such as agriculture or domestic work), or to better paid, but more harmful jobs (prostitution).
  • Some job is better than no job at all. "The outcry against soccer balls stitched by children in Pakistan led to the relocation of workshops ran by Nike and Reebok. Thousands lost their jobs, including countless women and 7000 of their progeny. The average family income - anyhow meager - fell by 20 percent." "The Morality of Child Labor", by Dr. Sam Vaknin

Education: Would the ban help children get education? Is it worth it?


  • Access to education. If children cannot find a well-paid job, they are more likely to value education, thus go to school. This increases literacy levels in developing countries and creates a supply of educated workers, who - in consequence - are able to carry out more value-added jobs, which increases their standard of living.
  • Education is important for increased productivity. "For an economy, education can increase the human capital in the labor force, which increases labor productivity and thus leads to a higher equilibrium level of output." ["A Contribution to the Empirics of Economic Growth", Quarterly Journal of Economics 107 (2): 407-37, by Mankiw, N. Gregory, David Romer, David Weil, 1992]
"[Education] can also increase the innovative capacity of the economy - knowledge of new technologies, products, and processes promotes growth." ["Endogenous Growth Theory", Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, by Aghion, Philippe, and Peter Howitt, 1998]
"[Education] can facilitate the diffusion and transmission of knowledge needed to understand and process new information and to implement new technologies devised by others, again promoting growth." [Benhabib, Jess and Mark M. Spiegel, "Human Capital and Technology Diffusion", Handbook of Economic Growth. Amsterdam: North Holland, 2005]
  • Children are interested in education, but cannot afford it. "The survey conducted by Khan [1993] on child labor in Bangladesh also reveals that (...) 63 percent of the surveyed child workers gave poverty as their reason for not attending school..." ["Child Labor in Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program", Journal of Economic Issues, by Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, Rasheda Khanam, Nur Uddin Absar, December 1999]
  • Parents recognize the value of education. "During 1970s, anthropologists surveyed Guatemalan indigenous people in areas where government wanted to build primary schools. Most parents did not believe their children should remain in school for more than four years, and even less in case of girls. In the 1990s, interviews with the same communities revealed that parents now want their children, even their daughters, to stay in school longer. (...) Parents recognize the returns to schooling." ["Child Labor: Issues, Causes, and Interventions", by Patrinos Siddiqi, Human Capital Development and Operations Policy Paper #56]
"...even in the PROBE states (where parental apathy is likely to be widespread) most parents attach importance to their children's education. For instance, in response to the question "is it important for a boy to be educated?", the proportion of the parents who answered "yes" is as high as 98 percent." "Public Report On Basic Education in India", The PROBE Team in association with Centre for Development Economics, 1999


  • Parents lack interest in education. According to Times of India from 15th August 1997, p. 37, "illiterate and semi-literate parents see no reason to send their children to school [3].
    • Parents have no incentives to send their children to school, even if the school is accessible. "The educational system, even if available or accessible, does not provide poor, disadvantaged children with immediate prospects for better jobs or higher earnings. Schools are not always properly equipped, and their curricula are not always perceived as meeting the practical needs of poor families. Besides, most families cannot pay for books, supplies, and uniforms for all their school-age children." ["Child Labor in Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program", Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999, by Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, Rasheda Khanam, Nur Uddin Absar]
  • Children lack interest in education. "According to these children, formal education means killing time; they want to learn through work, as work provides efficiency, food, and shelter for them." ["Child Labor In Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program", Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999, by Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, Rasheda Khanam, Nur Uddin Absar]
  • Even best students cannot get a job in developing countries. [Interview about the prospects of education in India with a local girl Sabeena] "Besides, the special schools only teach up to Grade Five. The better students, who have studied that far, find they have neither jobs nor seats in the school." Shahidul Alam for New Internationalist, July 1997
  • Ban will not help children get education. "Unfortunately, the schooling program for terminated child laborers is inadequate. According to statistics of BGMEA, the number of terminated child workers totaled 61.000 by 1996. Out of this huge number of child workers, only 1.464 were placed in 110 schools by September 1996..." ["Child Labor in Bangladesh:A Critical Appraisal of Harkin's Bill and the MOU-Type Schooling Program", by Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999, by Mohammad Mafizur Rahman, Rasheda Khanam, Nur Uddin Absar]
  • Education is no cure-all. "Expanding school attainment, at the center of most development strategies, has not guaranteed better economic conditions. (...) It implicitly assumes that all skills and human capital come from formal schooling. Yet extensive evidence on knowledge development and cognitive skills indicates that a variety of factors outside of school - family, peers, and others - have a direct and powerful influence. Ignoring these non-school factors introduces another element of measurement error in the growth analyses..." ["Education Quality and Economic Growth", World Bank, by Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Wössmann, 2007]

Micro credit: Could credit provision lead to less child labour? Can this policy complement export ban?


  • Ban and micro credit loans are not mutually exclusive, therefore these can be used as two parts of a broader policy.
  • Microfinance products for aiding education exist, such as, for example, "a loan product to support clients' children studying in the 8th grade and above", offered by ASA [4].
  • Giving credit alleviates the child labor issue. "Domestic credit market leads to unambiguously less child labour among borrowers. (...) Under fairly general and plausible circumstances, more developed credit markets are likely to induce poor households to reduce child labour and allocate more of their children's time to education. However, fully functional credit markets, on their own, may not eliminate child labour altogether." ["Will Trade Sanctions Reduce Child Labour? The Role of Credit Markets", by Jafarey, Saqib and Lahiri, Sajal, 1999]
  • Microfinance can positively affect literacy rate. "About 3,207 (83.52%) of the clients agreed that the rate of literacy has increased among them." [5]


  • A significant number of people did not believe in improved literacy. "But 633 (16.48%) of the responding clients opined that the rate of literacy did not increase." [6]

Free trade: Is the ban on exports better than free trade without barriers (concerning child labour)?



  • Trade is better than barriers to export. "Children are less likely to work in countries with more international trade. A 10 percent increase in openness is associated with a 7 percent decline in child labor at the data means. For non-OECD countries, trade with OECD countries is especially beneficial in terms of child labor. For the average non-OECD country, a 10 percent increase in the ratio of trade with OECD countries to GDP is associated with a 9 percent decline in child labor." ["International trade and child labor:Cross-country evidence", Journal of International Economics 68: 115-140, by Eric Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik, 2006]
  • Economic sanctions are counterproductive. Imposing economic sanctions on countries where child labour is common could "increase the hours worked by children". Based on a survey of child workers in rural Pakistan, is was found that child labour "was driven by poverty and the need for families to earn a minimum income." When hourly wages fell, children tend to make up for the "implied loss in income by working longer hours", or seeking "other paid work at a lower wage". [study by University of Bristol economist Sonia Bhalotra]
  • Export opportunities help eradicate child labour. "In the 1990s, Vietnam liberalised its rice trade and allowed rice farmers to take advantage of higher international prices. The rice sector boomed and living standards of rice producing households improved substantively. Despite greater employment opportunities, children in households that benefited from higher rice prices became much less likely to work. Altogether, it appears that roughly 1 million fewer children worked as a result..." ["The effect of trade liberalization on child labor", Journal of International Economics 65: 401-419, by E. Edmonds and N. Pavcnik, 2005]

Pro/con resources



See also

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