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, attempts to deal with the problem of child labour by passing laws and regulations, either in developed countries or in developing countries, can be massively counterproductive. A frequently cited example of this problem concerns Bangladesh. There, many thousands of children in the garment industry were fired in response to the threat of trade sanctions from the USA – many of them were thought to have ended up in stone crushing or in the child sex trade. Recently there have been repeated demands to include “labour standards” in the remit of the World Trade Organization – so that sanctions could be imposed on those countries that do not adhere to minimum standards including legal age limits on working. The likely result of this will be that child labour is driven underground and become even less well remunerated.

Catholic social teaching is remarkably prescient on this issue. Pope John Paul II warned that intolerable forms of child labour are a form of violence against children, and this is surely true. Pope Leo XIII also warned against employing children in factories whilst their bodies and minds are insufficiently developed. The recently published Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine accepts these points but also agrees that in certain countries child labour makes an indispensable contribution to family income and that part-time work can be beneficial for children. Indeed, perhaps some part-time work could be beneficial for our teenagers too? This teaching is surely a clear recognition that child labour is a pragmatic issue and to take action against it that actually increases exploitation or leads children into illegal or immoral occupations is folly.

What can we do?

Trade is important. The evidence is pretty clear that the extent of child labour reduces when countries trade more. More trade leads to greater economic opportunities and helps to alleviate the poverty that is the driving force behind child labour.

Legislation to prevent certain types of exploitation and work in certain industries is surely appropriate too. In fact, it is common for this form of child labour to be illegal in any case. But, is there anything positive that can be done? Kis-Katos and Schulze suggest that the best approach is for developing countries to promote policies that raise the attractiveness of schooling over working. Simply providing state schooling may not work as, in many developing countries, state schools do not provide the kind of education or the quality of education that young people need if they are to be attracted away from the labour market. Waivers of school fees for poor families or income subsidies to families tied to school attendance are approaches that can work. Developing methods of combining work and school can be particularly helpful in overcoming the practical problems that the children of poor families face. Often there is a willingness amongst families to school their children and an understanding that this will lead to higher family incomes in the future, but families have no mechanisms to finance education or make good the short-term loss of earnings. Micro-credit schemes, whereby families can borrow to finance their children’s education, can significantly reduce child labour.

Faced with a choice this Christmas, do not shy away from purchasing products you suspect are made with child labour. If you do not buy products made with child labour you may make a bad situation worse. Rather than saving a child from exploitation you could be condemning a family to malnutrition. But, if you can, help an organisation that will promote educational opportunities amongst those who, without such opportunities, may have no option but to work.