Child labour revisited

Toby Fattore, of the New South Wales Commission for Children and Young People has written an insightful and nuanced review of a book of international readings on child labour. Some of the more strident commentators on this topic are unfortunately still in the grip of the moral panic generated by the Saddler Committee report on the conditions in the English cotton mills circa 1830. Actually it was not a report on the cotton mills at all, except in its title, and Engles (of Marx and Engles) who knew something about cotton mills wrote that it was a travesty of real situation. Bill Hutt described how the falsehoods in the first report of the Saddler Committee were picked up and repeated uncritically by subsequent writers and so have become part of the accepted folklore about the industrial revolution.

Fattore wrote “Child Labor provides fifteen national case studies from four continents. By examining child labour in its historical, social, political and economic contexts, the book makes a wide-ranging contribution to our understanding of working children. The case studies demonstrate the diversity of child labour in rich and poor countries alike, and the variety of tasks and skills involved in the work that children do. The editors focus on exploitative and hazardous work including the worst forms of child labour. In adopting this focus, the book belongs to a body of research that implicitly understands work as harmful to child development. On this view, work for children should (ultimately) be abolished.”

Fattore, like every other humane person, accepts that children should not be exploited but he also points out that attempts to eliminate what comfortable western people regard as exploitation can easily produce more harm than good. The regular working conditions of many small farmers and fishermen, certainly 50 years ago, would probably be regarded as exploitation by the standards of affluent urban academics. The typical situation that reformers want to stop is the so-called “sweat shop” which is often enough more attractive both in payment and working conditions than the alternatives that are available, such as farm labouring or prostitution. One of the features of the reforming literature (and the Saddler Report) is the usual failure to find out the views of the children. Actually, in an ironic contrast, one of the common frustrations of modern parents in our society is the problem of getting children to do any kind of routine help around the place, let alone anything that would take more than five minutes or raise a sweat!

Fatore concluded “How the world deals with child labour reflects larger contradictions of global economic relations. While abolition is a policy response endorsed by the left and the right, and is promoted in rich and poor nations alike, it has unintended consequences for working children, their families and communities. Abolition is incompatible with policies that aim to protect and improve children’s working conditions. Bans imposed by rich nations on the import of products involving child labour have shifted this work underground, forcing children into more hazardous situations. These bans also encourage governments to pretend that child labour does not exist, pushing effective regulations further out of political reality. One investigation of children in the Bangladeshi garment industry after US import restrictions were imposed found that none had gone to school after leaving the industry, and that many were now engaged in more hazardous work.”

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