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Speaker says banning child labor could exacerbate poverty

by Scott Brinckerhoff - November 7, 2005

Banning child labor worldwide sounds like a laudable goal, but a total ban would push some children into even worse situations, such as prostitution and malnutrition, according to a Cornell University economist.

Professor Kaushik Basu, the keynote speaker during a three-day economic rights conference sponsored by UConn’s Human Rights Institute, described how globalization can bring both benefits and unexpected consequences to Third World countries.

The event, held Oct. 27 at Konover Auditorium, was part of a series of discussions focusing on the links between economic rights and human rights.

Using examples relating to child labor, workplace safety, class differences, and sexual harassment in the workplace, Basu said policies that developed nations accept as good will not always confer identical benefits in the Third World.

“Policies that reward parents for children attending school almost always yield good results,” he said, “but a sudden ban on child labor might mean malnutrition instead of going to school.”

He added, “If you are not going to do anything about starvation, you can’t take away their right to earn a living,” a reference to families that may have little choice but to send children into factories or mills because of “abysmally low adult wages.”

Approximately 250 million of the world’s children between the ages of 5 and 14 work at least part time, according to the International Labor Organization.

Of these, 120 million children work full time to help support their impoverished families.

In a country like Ethiopia, where Basu said 40 to 45 percent of children aged 10 to 14 work, a wiser policy than an outright ban might be to restrict child labor and insist on a certain amount of daily schooling.

Basu, who has written extensively on international labor, said some economic rights are viewed as absolute, at least in the United States. An example is the right to join a trade union. In the early 20th century, however, that right was routinely circumvented, until court rulings secured it.

But other rights, such as that of working in a safe environment, should be viewed as “tradable,” Basu said. He said a worker might choose to engage in mining, for example, an inherently dangerous type of work that can pay well.

“People may be willing to expose themselves to certain hazards,” he said.

In some situations, workers might opt to “trade” the right not to be sexually harassed or to work in a smoke-free environment in exchange for a good salary and benefits, Basu said.

He said economists and political leaders should avoid the temptation of adopting positions that sound unassailable in theory but cause new problems when implemented in the real world.

For example, the United States weighed whether to ban products made with child labor from entering U.S. markets, but ended up instead with compromise legislation that Basu called “the right kind of law.” The amended law focuses on forced or indentured child labor and products made by adults who are not paid enough to send their children to school.

When children are put to work, Basu said, it is most often out of economic necessity rather than “parental sloth” or “entrepreneurial greed.” For that reason, the best way to remove children from the work force is to improve the lot of their parents, he added.

Basu noted that India recently passed an economic rights law that recognizes a citizen’s right to work, and charges the government with providing a job if a person fails to find one on his or her own. The law requires that at least one person in every household is entitled, at a minimum, to 100 days of work a year.

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