Child labor, the abuse and exploitation of children in both legal and illegal industries, is certainly one symptom of poor, less developed countries. But can it also be a cause? In fact, child labor is a major hindrance to economic development, and can keep sectors where child labor is prevalent from reaching their full potential. Turns our combating child labor isn’t just an ethical choice — it’s a financially sound one.
How does child labor hinder the growth of an economy? First, we have to understand why child labor happens. Children are used in labor instead of adults because they are easier to enslave and exploit, and often less expensive to employ than adults. But when employers use exploited children instead of paid adults, they aren’t just stealing a childhood. They’re also denying a paying job to an adult who could benefit from that wage.
This practice leads to higher unemployment among adults, which is both a cause and symptom of financial depression or recession. The adults pushed out of paying jobs by exploited children are then lacking money to reinvest in their family, community, and economy. That leads to greater economic depression, which leads to more child labor, and the cycle continues. Where child labor is pervasive, it’s incredibly difficult for an economy to break this cycle and grow.
For example, let’s say there is a factory in El Salvador making t-shirts. This factory has, for years, been using children as about 30% of it’s 1000 person workforce. The children are anywhere from nothing to pennies an hour. If that factory ends its child labor practices and hires adult workers instead, it would create 300 new jobs in the community. These jobs would be presumably higher paid than the little-to-no wages received by the child laborers. The 300 adults receiving a higher wage would then have money to reinvest in the community, including supporting their children (some of whom might have been laborers) by sending them to school. As education and wages increase in the community, so does the general standard of living, GDP, and the economy. If a country made the move away from child labor on a national level, it could lift up communities all over the country in this way.
For too long child advocates have framed the ending of child labor as primarily an ethical issue. While ending child labor is certainly an ethical step, it also has important and positive financial ramifications. Ending child labor can boost economic development and education of communities. Both international development advocates and child protection organizations need to spend more time and energy understanding how child labor hinders development. Because while the ethical argument should be enough to make countries tackle child labor, the knowledge that doing so could boost their economy may be more persuasive.
Human trafficking and labor exploitation are economically motivated. And while the result may be a human rights violation, exploring the economic affects of child labor and slavery will yield better information with which to convince countries that fighting child labor is in their best interest — ethically and economically.
Photo credit: Werner Vermaak