May 28, 2009
Child Labor Inflation
With child labor inflation I do not mean an increase in the number of children working, but an increase in the age that is seen as borderline for child labor. It inflates the perceived problem and takes away attention from real cases.
A case in point is Juliette Terzieff's piece at WPR about concerns of increasing child labor in times of economic crisis. That concern is justified but I can not agree with the examples she links to and uses:
A claim that Chinese factories are allowed to disregard some employment regulation if they avoid laying off workers. The report says nothing about children at all.
A report on sixteen year old women working in a Chinese factory producing shoes for Nike while the Nike contract says the company should not employ anyone under eighteen. Sure the company should stick to its contracts, but why is a report on sixteen year old working in a factory headlined "Child Labor Allegations"?
Another report linked in Terzieff's piece highlights the death of a seventeen year old adolescent due to a machine male-function in another Chinese factory that produces for Disney. He started working there when he was fourteen.
The last example is of cotton harvest campaigns in Central Asia where, for a few weeks each year, children have to help the adults.
I regard none of those cases as child labor.
Starting with the last one German schools have two weeks of fall-holidays that were still named "potato-holidays" when I was in school. School was off but at least in the country site the children had to help with collecting the potatoes the grown ups dug up. My families vegetable garden was bit over an acre and we had no machines to take care of it. We would not have had our own potatoes without us children helping to harvest them. Starting at age twelve or so I also had to work an hour or so per day in my dads company to get my allowance. Was that child labor?
Two weeks after my fourteenth birthday I applied for work at a semitrailer factory for the summer holidays. The work was hard but I learned a lot about manufacturing and made about $2 per hour. I would not want to miss the experience nor the radio it bought me. Was that child labor?
Most of my junior high school mates entered an apprenticeship in this or that profession at age fourteen/fifteen while I went off to secondary school. Was theirs child labor?
I am concerned about real child labor where young kids are abused for regular and sustained labor, often in bad conditions and/or without pay. Unfortunately the economic downturn will indeed increase the number of children who will have to work. It is difficult to influence that. For the children the alternative may mean starvation.
Inflating the age of what we regard as child labor certainly does not help at all. The definition for children is a person between birth and puberty. Sixteen and seventeen year old are not children.
Also to characterize work in harvest campaigns as child labor is disingenuous. Not every farming family on this planet can afford machinery and harvest is a peak time where more hands are needed than usually. Hunger during the winter certainly hurts more than collecting potatoes or cotton during fall.
There is real child labor and we do not need the age inflation to argue and act against it.
Posted by b on May 28, 2009 at 09:25 AM | Permalink
I agree with you, I guess it's the difference of "country mouse" vs "city mouse" view points.
As you say, out in farm country the kids pitch-in to do all sorts of work around the family farms (yeah, they still exist) and you'll see kids as young as four riding horses in the kid's rodeo.
While there are probably horrible sweatshops with young children working long hours I hope the problem isn't as bad as it was during the turn of the century... those must have been horrific times for the kids.
I think it is very good for children to do some work as it builds "character" and gives the children a sense of self. I started helping cut firewood as soon as I could lift small pieces of wood. I didn't do much, but it made me feel good to help and as I grew I did more and more. I still recall the job I did at 16 with my dad, clearing six acres of logged forest... Tired as hell, I fell asleep on the drive home, made almost $200 and gained a lot of respect for my dad. Not bad for ten hours work!
But my experiences are far different than those of children in third-world countries (probably even some second world also) where children often have to work to provide for parents that have become ill or injured on the job. And what seems even worse is the child sex trade... which always gets big headlines but might be more like a Hollywood myth to keep kids out of trouble than a real problem... but I don't know, perhaps another person has some insight on this sick side street of child labor?
I think there are cultural differences that are at play with child labor... some people think education is hours of classroom time and others who feel an education is better learned "on the job".
The worst of them all (if there can be a worst when we are discussing the debasing of a childhood) is that of children soldiers which, if we take 17 as being a child (see b's link), then America is as guilty as any banana republic dictatorship.
Posted by: DavidS | May 28, 2009 10:06:45 AM | 1
It's precisely because of posts like this that i love your (y'all's?) work, b.
This is the sort of thing that hits close to my heart; it's part and parcel of the "protect our kids" theme that runs so rabidly through U.S. civic politics -- "safe" playgrounds, M.A.D.D., three-strikes and drug policy, "anti-bullying" campaigns (a provocative concept, but sure to be poorly implemented), "child services" interventions, armed school guards and what are those "no exceptions" policies that are so ascendant in U.S. schools?
There are plenty of things for the U.S. public to worry about vis a vis child exploitation, but for some reason the U.S's upper middle class believes most of them can be found in local neighborhoods.
Posted by: china_hand2 | May 28, 2009 10:41:52 AM | 3
i started working limited hours as a bag boy at a grocery store at the age of 15.
the stories b cites detract from more legitimate child labor concerns, like the sex trade, or the slave labor (domestic help)some wealthy americans use to keep their penthouses clean.
the child sex trade is one of the most insidious, billion dollar black market industries to ever exist, and it feeds the perverse proclivities of more than a few of our elected officials.
just look into the Franklin Credit Union scandal.
Posted by: Lizard | May 28, 2009 1:10:51 PM | 4
This is typical human rightist stuff. All through the ages children have worked, maybe trivially (do the dishes! or practise brick laying! go the the field...)...it is quite usual for children aged over 8 or 10, 12 or whatever to be considered as workers, producers. Only very rich societies claim that childhood is a golden era to be given over to pure education and leisure. Such as algebra classes and obligatory sports, the last to shine and reflect glory on the parents / community.
There is nothing wrong with third-world children, or first-world children, after age 12 or so, going to school half time and working half time for a proper wage. That actually happens in some places - India, etc.
The problem with child labor is that the children are exploited and not paid a proper wage for the work they do, nor for the skills, speed, agility, ideas, expertise. Being ‘minors‘ or ‘children‘ they escape legislation which is tailored to adults, that is over 18s or whatever. They can’t stand up for themselves, have no union or any offical belonging, or even proper contracts (and the developed world would never allow them such a thing), no support, and always feel guilty and trying to do their best, so are abused, ripped off. Families, parents condone it or shut up because it is a small or important income that could not be earned by anyone else. Some companies will not hire an adult if child labor is a possibility. It is cheaper, much cheaper, and will not lead to trouble, it is under the radar, so to speak.
Posted by: Tangerine | May 28, 2009 2:14:14 PM | 5
Tangerine gets it right, again.
the main thing here is the amount the youngsters get paid. if they are doing the work of an adult, and an adult is without work, it doesn't seem right to me that the young person should get less money for doing the same amount of work while a capable adult is without work.
we all worked as children, of this I am quite convinced. not many of us were forced to work in a sweatshop knotting rugs or doing work designed for small hands and fingers though.
it may be too much to trivialize child labor because we did work when we were small. picking potatoes for a couple of days a year is not really the same as making bricks every day for a year. gathering eggs or feeding the rabbits is quite different from herding sheep all day long.
I guess another deciding factor would be whether the children work for their parents or for someone else. that difference is important to me. but then I am not a very good capitalist.
Posted by: dan of steele | May 28, 2009 2:59:14 PM | 6
My first real money making job was at 14 years old, being a caddy at a local country club. The money wasn't too bad, but the revelations on adult "rich people behavior" was priceless. I now look back on the whole experience as a sort of working for the circus episode, except there were no animals or acrobats. Just a bunch of pompous, clubby, and feckless type A personality clowns in silly looking costumes acting like they knew what they were doing.
It was quite the education.
Posted by: anna missed | May 28, 2009 3:31:37 PM | 7
yeah, that's probably a better education in life than any college level class would have been. I think everyone should have to experience the pompous rich... it really gives one perspective on how little some folks regard others and is a good lesson to learn young.
Posted by: DavidS | May 28, 2009 5:54:16 PM | 8