Like sweatshops, we should do our best not to support companies that use child labor. Right?

I’ve previously brought up my belief that sweatshops are a positive force for the people that work in them. Similarly, I believe that international activism aimed at ending child labor practices are not only misguided, but actually make the conditions of children even worse off.

Like sweatshops, children work in relatively harsh conditions because their better alternatives stink. If you take away the best alternative, you don’t make those people better off my ‘taking a stand’. You put them into even worse conditions. Such was the case when, as Oxfam documented, a closing of a “sweatshop” caused a large majority of the young women employed to go into prostitution. Sweatshops are horrible, but is prostitution better? (Read the article by Ben Powell to get a full argument in support of sweatshops.)

In America, we like to think that all children have the right to education and that kids shouldn’t have to work, especially in horrible conditions. But picture America 200 years ago (or maybe even more recently than that). Kids were working all around the country. On farms, in factories, in daddy’s blacksmith shop, etc. This was because, at the time, America hadn’t reached a stage of economic development where those families could afford to forfeit their child’s free labor so that they could get an education. Only later, when America experienced tremendous economic growth, did families have the luxury of sending their kids to school instead of using their labor for working. In short, economic growth – though sometimes slower than we have patience for – is the true remedy for improving working conditions, not labor laws.

These arguments might not seem persuasive. You might be saying “sweatshops are just one of those things I know are wrong. How can you justify these cruel practices?”

I bring up this topic because a recent article linking international activism against child labor with decreasing conditions for the people that activism is aiming to help. To sum up, when we lower the demand for the products that these children are producing, their wages and conditions consequently decrease. Why is this, and why is there nothing that we can do through interventions like boycotts and legislation? Again, I suggest reading Ben Powell’s essay.