by Merlin Hernandez

I wrote this quite some time ago and then vacillated about posting it because I did not wish to open a can of worms here. Then I thought of all the cultural practices in the world that have validity within their contexts but are frowned upon because of judgments based on Western values. But respect for diversity has one fundamental prerequisite – an open mind.

I have somewhat of a controversial position when it comes to child labor and I am not so quick to brand the practice exploitative or a sweatshop environment. There are certain macroeconomic considerations that would cause the equation to fall on the side of child labor in certain economies/communities. It is an important variable to family income and survival as imported inflation pushes up prices for some basic necessities and money earned by the children helps to keep a roof over the family and food on the table. This is not to say that there are no exploitative elements to the practice but the conditions under which children are allowed to work – age limits, hours per day, types of occupations, wage scales, ventilation etc. – need to be legislated. It should be part of the corporate responsibility to advocate for legislation as well as systems for enforcement that will govern appropriate conditions of work when companies operate in these economies.

The negativity associated with child labor is essentially a part of our western bias but some economies simply do not have that luxury at this stage of their development. Besides, the work of children has always contributed to the family income, even in the West. Whether we labeled it chores or paid work, children have tended animals, done the milking, fed the chickens, gathered nuts and grains, planted the crops, hunted the family dinner…And it was no hobby. It was necessary work. So perhaps now they spend time in factories.

Western outrage may reduce the use of child labor in these countries but that might be catastrophic for both the family and the economy as the disposable incomes and spending power of families shrink significantly ultimately causing the economy to contract. Less family income – as an indicator of personal income per capita, adjusted for inflation – means less money circulating in the economy to purchase goods and services. The result would be that the National Income Index – which also measures GDP – could fall below the desired benchmark for economic health. Let us say that a government needs to borrow money to build schools or health facilities, their national income index would be one determinant of whether they get the loan or not. In such fragile economies, child labor becomes a valuable source of real income.

In many cases in the developing world, the barrier to dispensing with child labor does not only lie in corporate profitability but also in some of the macroeconomic and cultural imperatives of host economies. From an ethical perspective, governments need to act in the best interest of their reality and allow conditions that contribute to the stakeholder good which includes the families who depend on those incomes. Large corporations can always introduce more advanced technologies for faster production and less dependence on labor but it will alter the relationships among members of a community as well as their ownership of their roles within the means of production. In the lexicon of economic development, “appropriate development” will factor cultural practices like child labor but in a way that straddles the ethical, human and economic needs of emerging economies. None of this is to imply that there are no sweatshops operating in these countries but we have to be mindful that there are many cultural practices that have validity within their particular contexts, and restrain ourselves from any attempt to impose our values in our analysis of those practices.

Companies like Nike and Martha Stewart might have dedicated some of their resources to advocating for strict regulation of child labor practices while leading by example with programs like a homework center, tutoring for the children they do employ, and provision of textbooks, supplies to the schools, and a child welfare health clinic. Pandering to uninformed biases at home and not being proactive partners in the personal development of their child employees for the ultimate socioeconomic growth of their host economies is more of an ethical violation than employing children. Corporations should recognize the incredible opportunity a comprehensive child labor program presents in the corporation positioning itself as a real partner in the development of the host country. It is indeed a win-win for both partners.