Not too long ago, I was walking across the Diag and saw a group of students speaking out (very loudly) against child labor. I respect the desire to prevent minors from having to work, but to call for an outright end to child labor is absurd.

I agree that in a few specific cases, there are problems with the practice. In central Congo, for example, children work in diamond mines for under a dollar a day. They are surrounded by guns and unstable mud walls, and many are killed. But on the whole, child labor provides an avenue for millions around the world to survive. It may not be progressive or ideal, but it keeps them alive and can be much better than the alternatives. Plus, it makes things cheaper for Americans.

Sometimes, it’s better to make soccer balls than to be on the streets or forced into prostitution. In the mid ’90s, a UNICEF study found that an international boycott of Nepali rugs that aimed to stem child labor resulted in the loss of several thousand factory jobs held by children. Many of these children, mostly girls, wound up as prostitutes.

In the late 1980’s, the Bangladeshi textile industry (which today employs thousands of children) was still under development, and many children were on the streets as beggars, prostitutes or hard laborers. With the expansion of the textile industry and the emergence of sweatshops, many of these children were taken off the streets. If there is any doubt that child labor was responsible for this positive change, then an Oxfam study illustrates the consequences of factory closures: in one case, up to 30,000 children lost their jobs, many became prostitutes and some even starved. The factories were closed in response to international discontent with their use of child labor.

What needs to be understood is that the alternative to work is not school or a “normal” childhood. If activists force the closure of factories employing children, then the children will suffer. If there is no work, there is no food. The children know this, so they will take whatever work manifests itself.

There are also less savory forms of child labor, but even those can provide salvation in desperate situations. It’s possible that parents may place their children into indentured servitude. Often, this results in exploitation of the children, but in many places it functions as a last resort. A typical arrangement will involve a (low) lump sum payment to the family in return for a 2-3 year period of work from the child. If a family is faced by hardship — a debt, backed rent or parents who are temporarily incapacitated — such an agreement can keep the entire family off the streets, including the child.

This is part of the reason why individuals who choose to boycott firms or products that involve the use of child labor may unintentionally be harming the children. A multinational company is probably among the best possible employers for a child. The wages tend to be more regular and are generally higher than the local alternatives. Plus, there is no danger of indentured servitude. Even the adults benefit: when a big factory opens, the local demand for labor increases, and so can wages. In most cases, sweatshop wages even exceed the local average.

And don’t be fooled by companies that promote “fair trade.” At the end of the day, if a company has a slogan that emphasizes its “no-sweat” stance, then it’s simply attempting a different approach to product differentiation. Buying from such a company doesn’t actually help the individuals who are in sweatshops — it just makes the buyers feel better about themselves, allows them to “make a statement” and drains their pockets. It also diverts business from employers who keep children off the streets.

On a larger scale, the movement against anti-child labor can become entangled with protectionism. It is all too easy for an industry to seek protection by lobbying to limit imports under the veil of promoting children’s rights. Better yet, it is not only politically correct, but can improve a company’s image in the eyes of a well-intentioned public. Of course, there is no real benefit to those abroad — on the contrary, any import restrictions will only result in the children losing their jobs and livelihoods.

If you drink Coca-Cola, know that the sugar may have come from a plantation in El Salvador, employing a contingent of child laborers. But be happy: you have done your part to prevent those kids from joining violent gangs like MS-13 or 18th Street. My family is from that country, and let me tell you, it does make a difference. I remember watching an old lady have her head bashed open in a grocery store, presumably by a gang member. When children as young as seven are being recruited by these same people to traffic drugs or engage in gang warfare, labor provides a safe alternative. It’s a win-win: the children are safe and paid, the multinationals make money and it can even prevent crime.

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