Child Labour : Debate Help .::. Debate Topic : Pros and Cons

Author:Jacqueline Rose ( United Kingdom ) Jacqueline is a History student at Clare College, Cambridge. A former convener of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Cambridge Union Schools Competition, she now runs workshops for intermediate level Cambridge debaters.

Created: Monday, December 02, 2002
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2011

In the past activists have tried to encourage consumers to boycott companies using child labour by means of negative publicity about the conditions under which children work. The debate is partly, therefore, about whether such action (which may be ignored) is sufficient to force companies themselves to act, or whether it is more effective to use sanctions to pressurise governments into setting up national legal regulations (which might be avoided or repealed). However, there is a second issue: whilst it is normally deemed a truism that child labour is inherently bad, a subtler reasoning is sometimes illuminating. It is hard to see how child labour on family farms can be avoided, when countries do not have the resources to set up schools and to pay families a minimum income. Ultimately child labour ends up more as a question of solving poverty than a simple moral or emotional issue.
A model for a sanctions regime would need to take several details into account: both general ones regarding sanctions cases (by whom will sanctions be imposed? And to what extent will they be enforced?) and questions particular to this topic: what age is a ‘child’? Is child labour inherently a issue, or is the debate really about minimum labour standards for any employee?


There is an international duty on governments to uphold the dignity of man. This can only be done with the independence gained from education, a good quality of life and independent income. Child labour destroys the creativity and innocence of the young, and must be stopped.Whilst codes of ‘human rights’ are effective bases for enforcing political and legal standards, they are less effective in dealing with social and economic ones. It is realistic to use sanctions to enforce rights to free expression and the rule of law; impossible to force an impoverished state to maintain Western standards of education and labour laws, which did not exist when the West developed. This use of sanctions merely lessens their impact when used for the correct purposes.
Sanctions provide the only means of forcing states to take action. Consumer pressure is too weak to do so - whilst opinion pollsters are told their interviewees are willing to pay more for ethical products, very few people put this into daily practice.Consumer power has proven highly effective in the past in forcing trans-national companies to institute ethical practices. Boycotts of one producer lead others to act out of fear of negative publicity - the market takes care of the problem itself.
Pressure on trans-national companies is not enough. It is a fallacy to believe that all child labour equals sweatshop work for multinationals in poor countries. There is a difference between this, family labour on farms (in both developed and less developed countries), the use and trade of child prostitutes and countries who force children into their armies.Quite true - this is why sanctions, an inherently blunt instrument, will always fail. Imposing sanctions on whole states is unfair as they are not wholly responsible for the actions of individuals within them. Should we impose sanctions on the USA because illegal sweatshops have been found to exist there?
Ending child labour will allow the young to have greater chances of education and development. This will increase the human resources of a country for the future, thus encouraging economic growth. Their labour will be replaced by drawing from the large pool of underemployed adults in most developing countries; often these will be the parents of current child workers, so there will be little or no overall impact on family income.A utopian vision of all previously labouring children entering school is belied by evidence showing many either cannot afford to pay school fees or continue to work at the same time. In fact, many TNCs have now set up after-work schools within the very factories that activists criticise.
It is true that alternatives will need to be found to previous employment - but raising liquidity by loans secured on future earnings or micro-banking are both possible scenarios. The international community was able to place human rights over the cause of free trade in the cases of South Africa and Burma - so why not here?Placing sanctions on some companies will merely hide child labour underground. Moving children, who have to work from poverty, into unregulated and criminal areas of the economy will only worsen the situation. Is it really likely that the WTO, a bastion of free trade, would accept the restrictions that sanctions entail?
This is an argument for a targeted and more sophisticated use of sanctions, not against them in any form. Sometimes free market economics is simply an excuse for a denial of responsibility.Sanctions harm the poorest in society - companies will simply move to areas where the restrictions do not apply. Past experience has shown that government interference with the market does more harm than good.

This House believes that children should be free.
This House believes that education is the best economics.
This House would end child labour.
This House would put sanctions on states using child labour.

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