David R. Henderson  

Child Labor vs. Child Slavery

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In his comment on my post on child labor, Ryan Chamberlain argues against child labor, emphasizing child slavery, as if I had advocated child slavery. This is truly strange, given that I wrote:

In other words, school goes beyond child labor. It is forced child labor.

So I thought it would be clear to readers that I'm against having the government use force on children. So if I'm against that, it would seem to be obvious that I'm against child slavery. You can't have slavery without using force. I guess it wasn't obvious to Mr. Chamberlain.

While Chamberlain starts out claiming that "Chile [sic] labor is clearly defined by umpteen international organizations," his further statements, as commenter George F. Haley notes, show lack of clarity. For example, he states that child labor, which, I'm gathering, he objects to, includes "work that is likely to harm children's health, safety or morals." By whose standards? Moreover, he writes that what matters is "whether the child is in a constructive, nurturing and supportive environment or not." That seems to be upping the ante.

My first job for pay--it was probably illegal--other than when I was a newspaper boy, was when I was about 12 and the guy who ran the local drive-in hamburger stand in Carman, Manitoba hired me to clean up the garbage and burn it each morning. He paid me 50 cents a morning. It was great! At the time, my allowance was only 25 cents a week and so this fifteen-tupled my income. Constructive? What's that mean? Nurturing? No way: if I did my job right, I saw him once a week to collect my $3.50. Supportive? Who knows?

Now you might argue that that hardly is comparable to a child in Bangladesh working to make money for food. Exactly! The stakes are much higher in a dirt-poor country than in Canada. An Oxfam study found that when carpet makers in Bangladesh were pressured to fire their child laborers, the kids went to their next best alternatives: prostitution or starvation.

By the way, although I have no idea what Paul Krugman would say about this now, in 1997 he agreed with my 1996 analysis and said it eloquently.

The person who tries to get you fired is not your friend.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Pandaemoni writes:
You can't have slavery without using force.

Just an aside (as I do think it's silly to assume you'd be in favor of child slavery), but there is such a thing as voluntary slavery, where no coercion is required. It may be rare, but some people have volunteered for slavery in the past.

Tom West writes:

Given the very nature of childhood and that our parents force our actions for much of our early lives, isn't "child slavery" meaningless? Everything is forced.

Back to the child labor laws - Like every law on earth, there are cost to their benefits.

So, first, in a North American context, can I point out that laws against the sorts of jobs that have been discussed here are either non-existent (small amounts of work are allowed) or not enforced?

The *actual* issues in child-labor revolve around near full-time work. The trade-offs that important in such a context are lost educational opportunities (students with a full-time workload are a lot likelier to drop-out) vs. work experience gained and enjoyment of the additional money (nowadays, it's pretty rare that the money children earn goes to the family).

In poorer countries, the trade-offs tend to be greater educational opportunity vs. additional money into the home. However, this is complicated by the fact that such money may be necessary for survival or it may simply be extra income, and in a national context, it won't be either-or.

Also, I think it short-sighted to ignore the cultural impact that these laws have. Without child-labor laws, children can be viewed as an economic asset, encouraging larger families. The social norm can be to put one's children to work, even when it is not economically necessary for survival, eliminating the educational opportunities that encourage long-term growth.

I think if the discussion is framed in ways that address the real issues rather than scoring points, we're likely to see a more interesting and possibly constructive conversation.

Methinks writes:

but some people have volunteered for slavery in the past.

Yes, we called it "marriage".

Daublin writes:

The most irritating part to me is that in all practical cases, people think that child labor is a good idea. Farm work, tutoring, pizza delivery, lawn service, .... Aren't these generally things we'd be happy to see our children doing?

David R. Henderson writes:

Exactly. I would have been very p***ed off at someone who had tried to stop me from various of my labor-for-hire activities. We had a case recently where the local government in Salinas actually halted a whole construction project because the contractor's 14-year-old son, during the summer, mind you, was working on the project. No claim was made that the son was badly treated or overworked. He probably learned a good deal. I hope he also learned that the government is not typically his friend.

Lori writes:

I think the view of school=slavery maybe rests on overly-formal application of overly-narrow definitions. But a lot of left-side anarchists approve of unschooling (or otherwise disapprove of schooling) so I'm all ears. I think a lot of the objection to child labor over the years (and even today in some countries) is that there is something somehow horizon-shrinking if work is so large (or more importantly, so necessary) a part of a child's life that it entirely precludes education (including education via unschooling). In keeping with the perhaps dated notion that childhood is somehow associated with innocence, a lot of people would like to think that the privileges of youth include the privilege of assembling the building blocks of what they call an examined life, and maybe even the privilege of, if not living to work, at least not living to work. That your entry into paid work earned you a fourteenfold increase over what was your allowance is impressive, and reflects very positively on your character, but somehow I think the children of most direct concern to the cause of abolishing child labor, probably would have found an allowance to be a pretty alien concept. Nowadays, many lefties (and righties too, of course) are concerned that there's too little child labor. In 20/20 hindsight it appears that we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Between parenting, schooling, "activities" and other features of the childhood social environment, there is nothing that directly prepares the soon-to-emerge adult for the world of competitive work. While generally supportive of the idea of public education, I must admit it left me utterly unprepared for those Realities. My general reaction to this Unfortunate Situation has been an envy and admiration of what I've been told is the German System of Apprenticeship. Apparently the skilled trades apprenticeship program is somehow dovetailed into the public school program. I think this idea has some merit in that if the public schools are open to the public, then an apprenticeship that is part of the curriculum is also open to the public, rather than being a hotbed of nepotism. Perhaps the program does not work as advertised. How would I know? I'm not proud to say it, but I've never even been to Europe.

Lori again writes:


if not living to work, at least not living to work. -> if not living to work, at least not working to live.

I'm so embarrassed.

PrometheeFeu writes:


No. There is no such thing as voluntary slavery because if someone is volunteering for it and they can choose to stop, it is not slavery. By definition, coercion is a necessary element of slavery.

@David Henderson:

I think the case against child labor has been poorly stated. A more persuasive argument is that most children have a capacity for judgement which is much less than that of most adults combined with a small stature and they often have less information. The primary consequence of that is that children could be easily tricked or bullied into "consenting" to perform tasks which are highly dangerous. Think children whose small hands made them perfect to unjam the machinery at a factory. On the other hand, parents are assumed to have the best interests of their children at heart and so, under the direct supervision of their parents, children are allowed to engage in dangerous activities under the assumption that the parent will correctly weigh the dangers versus the benefits to the child.

This arrangement is far from perfect. It means that some children are denied some opportunities and some parents do not have the judgement or do not care enough for their children to make good decisions in the stead of their children. (Whatever good decisions might mean) But ultimately, in most developed societies, I think this is a roughly balanced way to protect children from an abuse of their vulnerability. Perhaps we could better tailor it to carve out more exceptions, but I definitely think this is better.

When it comes to the developing world, I think we have an additional factor on our hands. The child is working often not because that will provide them with an allowance for candies but sometimes because their very survival depends on it. In that case, the balance probably shifts in favor of letting children work as despite their often even greater vulnerability to the dangers I described above, the alternative is still worst.

PrometheeFeu writes:


I must admit that I find German system which involves early professional selection with people being moved on vocational tracks, scary. I was one of these kids who tended to have poor grades for a variety of reasons. (Many of them self-inflicted) This would have probably sent me along a "trades" track as it is unlikely I would have qualified for one of those more highly prized academic tracks. That is more or less what was starting to happen in the French system too. Thankfully I moved to an American school and today I am a software engineer. No, my grades did not improve but the American (private I should specify) school system allowed me to study what I wanted instead of funneling me towards what was "best" and later I was able to through creativity and hard work demonstrate my worth to employers. So I find myself somewhat scared of all systems which based upon school performance basically assign you to a career.

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