EVERY high street in Scotland offers us items created by people whose poverty we can barely imagine. The tea in our cups was plucked by young women earning pennies in Sri Lanka. Our coffee has similar origins

Now we are learning that fashionable trainers were crafted by children in grim circumstances in Laos or the Philippines.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), an arm of the United Nations, has just published a report outlining these horrors and urging steps the world should take to suppress child labour. It says that one in six children are at work between their sixth and 17th birthdays. The occurrence of child labour seems a good barometer of local poverty.

The ILO’s arguments are more than moral outrage – they also say the children are of less economic value without decent schooling.

I don’t contest the good intentions of these arguments. I’m sure I’d be pained if I saw children in workshops in Cambodia or Somalia. Yet for the ILO’s economic literacy, I give low marks: suppressing child labour would only deepen misery.

In its foggy way, the ILO argues parents should be paid the equivalent of their child’s market value, replacing the income forfeited if the child attends school instead. It is ambiguous where this money would come from but presumably through taxation of the population – ie, the parents.

It is easy for us to “tut” about child labour from our capitalist affluence. If you live in the deeply impoverished nations where markets have been suppressed or deformed, your only asset is your ability to work, and that of your children.

Sometimes I find people assume children did nothing more than picnic and play happily until the evil capitalists forced them into textile mills and down the mines after the Industrial Revolution. The truth is that child labour was the reality of life in all rural economies long before Dickens got on the case of child chimney sweeps.

It was the rise of capitalism that permitted the extended years of leisure we call education. Working in the newly-emerging factories was regarded as a far better option than slaving in the fields – linen was more profitable than turnips.

Child labour is not the modern invention of “globalisation”. All farming has always used children. Scotland’s school summer holidays exist not so everyone can fly down to the Spanish Costas, but so children are free to help with the harvest. To learn rural skills was the reality of education in most of human history. In more urban areas, the young would learn other appropriate skills.

I believe that working in scruffy factories in Manila or Nairobi is an opportunity for the people involved. Making fashion garments or chic trainers for eventual sale on Princes Street offers far greater benevolence than the humbugging of overseas aid. Aid is famously described as a device by which the poor people in the West fund the rich of the Third World. But free trade in shirts transfers money from the rich of the West to the poor of the East.

All the US democratic presidential candidates have been out-shouting each other about child labour as a malignancy caused by globalisation. Our own politicians are apprehensive about “asylum seekers”, the new euphemism for immigration. Do people try to flock westwards because of our crazy policies? Or do they look for a solution to the economic problems they have in their own country?

The biggest single preventable cause of poverty is the European Union’s agricultural policies. Affluence could spread across the planet if we opened our markets to non-EU foodstuffs. I remain baffled why no Scottish politician campaigns to cut the price of our groceries. Would it not be popular? I’m not advocating sending any child into dangerous or degrading roles, but I do believe every school could allow pupils to widen their knowledge and experience by participating in local commercial life. It could be fun. It could be life-changing. Many of Scotland’s young are held captive in schools that bore them and alienate them. All that we seem willing to accept is newspaper rounds and there is even talk in Brussels of banning them. Participating in your community’s shops, say, can only widen experience. We regard student jobs as a degradation. It ought to be part of growing up.

As the economies of Asia accelerate, the number of children working tumbles as parents prefer to buy education. They know an educated child should earn more and so help the extended family. Self interest must be a better guide than abstract good intentions from the IL’s office block in Geneva.

Next time you are exploring the ever cheaper wares in your favourite shops, look at the origin labels. The people who produce these items are richer than they would be without production lines near their homes.

A pernicious argument is that children working stop adults earning full wages. This is precisely the economic dunce-speak that used to argue a woman’s place is in the home. Adam Smith argued that a poor man’s poverty can be his asset, he can trade or work his way up. The Third World’s great advantage is their relative cheapness. Muddled, if kindly, thinking wants to suppress this.

Rich countries should welcome the new nations joining the markets. Child labour will evaporate as prosperity spreads. In the meantime, Scottish pupils might find a day’s work far more educational than torture by blackboard.

John Blundell is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

For more on the issue of child labour see:
It’s ok to buy goods made with child labour by Philip Booth.