Monday, April 27, 2015

The complex issue of child labor

Many western companies, especially clothing companies, manufacture their products where the labor is the cheapest, ie. the developing countries mainly in south Asia and many parts of Africa. This is the reason why you can buy those products for a tenth of their normal price, compared to if they were produced normally.

For the past 20 or so years it has been brought to public attention that many of those factories in those developing countries, which are subsidiaries (or subsidiaries of subsidiaries) of big western megacorporations, use children as their workforce, and they often work in absolutely horrible environments (and this is how they can keep their production costs so low.) This was true 20 years ago, and it's still true today. It's a constant problem that has no end in sight.

Many companies go out their way to rectify this. Their position is (and it's probably true in many cases) that they do not directly allow the employment of children, and that they always demand adequate working conditions, but it's difficult to control what contractors of contractors of contractors do to manufacture the products. The company cannot be everywhere at once, at every single factory that might be used that particular week to produce their products, because the chain of contractors can be so long and in fact hard to trace, and the factories can change places so often.

Regardless, many companies have successfully toned down the amount of child labor and unhealthy working conditions in their manufacturing process. The governments of many of those countries have of course also helped.

That seems all fine and dandy. However, there's another side to the coin.

Several documentaries have been produced about child labor in these poor countries. Many of them are not judgmental, but simply approach the subject in a neutral manner.

For example in one of these documentaries they interviewed an employer who employed children to work in his clothing factory. His defense? "At least they are here earning money for their families rather than on the street selling themselves to earn that money."

And that's actually the more horrifying and ugly truth behind all this. Many of these places are pretty much hells from the perspective of children. They effectively face three possible options: Starve to death alongside the rest of their families, go into prostitution at a horrendously young age, or work in a factory.

I'm not saying that those factory owners who employ children are saints and heroes. However, what are the alternatives? It seems to me that at many places they are the lesser of many evils.

Of course the optimal solution would be to increase the living standards of the entire country so that no children would need to face these horrible choices. But this goes to the crux of this whole thing: Western countries do not care much.

We are only horrified at the prospect of child labor, and celebrate when a company stops it from happening... and that's it. We stop paying attention. We don't care what exactly happens to those children who stopped working at the factory. We stop caring what the conditions of that country are that allowed or even forced children to work at factories in the first place. Sure, some of us might pay lip service to that aspect as well, but it's not something we rally for as loudly as the horrible idea of child labor itself.

So, I suppose that my point is that the next time you feel enraged when you hear about child labor, think about the larger picture. Think about why those children are being employed, and what their realistic alternatives are in that country, and what it is that you should really get angry about.

It may be a horrible thing to say, but perhaps at this very moment, until that country perhaps becomes better in the future, it may indeed be so that it's better for those children to work in a factory than to sell themselves on the street, if they have no other options.

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