The most important lesson is one that should be obvious to anyone who thinks seriously about this matter, but nevertheless seems to be lost on many well-meaning folks – namely, if children in very poor countries aren’t working in factories, they’re likely to be working on farms. Child labor exists largely because families in underdeveloped countries are poorer than Americans can imagine. In short, child labor is a symptom of deep poverty, as well one of the (admittedly less pleasant) means of helping families escape deep poverty.
I lectured this past weekend at an IHS seminar. A few of the outstanding students in attendance questioned my support of free trade with countries in which children work in factories. To these students, such labor is evil and should not be encouraged or even tolerated. (I think I’ll e-mail to these students this Postrel column.)
"What’s the alternative?" I asked these students.
Asking such a question sounds callous. But if the alternative to working in a factory is working on a (probably subsistence) farm, two thoughts should spring immediately to mind: (1) in societies in which child labor is prevalent, children will labor somewhere, even if regulations and trade sanctions remove them from factories producing goods for export to rich countries – locking children out of factory work does not thereby send them home to watch tv, practice piano, read Roald Dahl, or help grandma bake muffins; (2) farm work isn’t necessarily safer or more pleasant than factory work – perhaps it is better in some dimensions (maybe even in most dimensions); my point is that farm labor shouldn’t be romanticized just because it’s done outdoors with furry or feathery critters (who kick, bite, defecate, and attract vermin and insects). If reliable data could be gathered, I’d bet that they’d show that farm labor in such countries is almost as dangerous and unpleasant as is the typical job performed by a child laborer in a factory.