In Defense of Child Labor (An Overly Pity Post)

“Child labor is evil. There should be regulations preventing children from working in factories, especially those of multinational corporations that are exploiting developing country labor. Children should be in school where they belong!” Say critics of child labor.

Unfortunately, in the real world when children don’t work in the formal sector they aren’t running off to school with their books in tow, ready to absorb math and literature lessons from the — let’s be totally honest — highly trained developing country teachers. They’re relegated to working in the informal sector like this charcoal slum in Manila:

Most parents are too poor to send their children to school, and they need the extra pair of hands to help augment the family income. The average daily wage for one worker is 150-200 pesos (£2-£2.50), barely enough to buy food.

Doesn’t look very pleasant. I’d rather have them in a factory. Yes, I know the argument is more complex, just something to think about.

Correction: I too would rather have them, not in a factory, but in school. Or doing pretty much any else for that matter. A single-shot regulation baring child labor probably isn’t the answer though. But I don’t often here the average anti-child labor “man on the street” offering much more. They are operating off of emotion and a genuine concern for the safety and welfare of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. However, there is (much) more complexity to the story. We always have to ask what are the realistic alternatives. School isn’t always one of them and there are a lot of policy, economic, and institutional bridges to cross before that changes — and there is a “meantime” we have to deal with before we’re safely on the other side.

I have only scratched the surface of this issue’s complexity, but I won’t say any more for now since this is, after all, meant to be pithy.

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