It's ok to buy goods made with child labour

In an article in the Catholic Herald, Philip Booth argues we should not worry if our children's Christmas presents are made by other people's children

Its ok to buy goods made with child labour

As we begin thinking about shopping for Christmas presents for our children, it will not have escaped our notice that many of the toys we buy are made in China, Pakistan or India. For even the most ardent believers in free trade, this can lead to pangs of guilt as we think about poor children who are frequently working in appalling conditions to make Christmas presents for our own much more fortunate children. This issue is discussed in Catholic Social Teaching but for both theologians and economists agree that the issues are far from straightforward.

In the first place it is worth considering certain issues that are not specific to the conditions of children. There are many adults, in many countries of the world, living and working in conditions that we would regard as inhumane. When we start trading with such countries, and buying their products, we become more conscious of their situation because, in however loose and impersonal a sense, we have a relationship with them. But it is a mistake to think that the development of trade and commercialisation are at the heart of the problem of people working in very poor conditions. China has lifted 300 million people out of dollar-a-day poverty through opening its markets. Economic growth in India has dramatically reduced child labour in recent years.

The conditions of workers who move to the newly industrialised cities and towns when underdeveloped countries start to grow are poor but invariably better than those associated with the subsistence-level agriculture to which such people had been tied in the countryside. Conditions will improve further only when workers have more alternative economic opportunities. Openness to trade and a free economy are necessary, if not always sufficient, conditions to creating greater opportunity.

This is highly relevant to our thinking about child labour. Child labour is often believed to be a problem of exploitation. In fact, it is a problem whose root cause is poverty and a lack of alternative economic opportunities. Deciding not to buy footballs made in Pakistan because they are made by children working in poor conditions will not solve a problem of exploitation, but it will exacerbate a problem of poverty. This is certainly the conclusion of research recently published by the Institute of Economic Affairs undertaken by two German economists Krisztina Kis-Katos and Gunther G. Schulze.

One interesting feature of their research is that there is no relationship at all between the legal minimum age of employment and the proportion of young children in work. Nigeria has a minimum employment age of 12 with about 24% of 10-14 year olds in work. Most other African countries have much higher minimum ages for employment and a higher percentage of 10-14 years olds in work. Laws make little difference: desperate poverty is the overwhelming factor that leads children into employment.

There have been various ways at different times by which a ban on children’s employment has been implemented: countries have passed laws of their own volition; international pressure has been brought to bear in some cases for a ban on child labour; and trade boycotts have been organised so that developed country governments or consumers in a developed country refuse to buy imports made with child labour.

The problem with the view that passing laws is the solution to the problem of child labour is that it assumes that, when parents send their children to work, they are abusing them rather than pursuing the best interests of their families. It is not lack of interest in the wellbeing of their children that leads parents to send children to work rather than to school, it is a lack of money. As a result,