When Child Labor is the Only Option

Today I was surfing the Internet at work instead of analyzing data or bowing to the ridiculous demands of our IRB when I happened across this article on The Huffington Post.  As I flipped through the slides, I noticed a not altogether unexpected trend: NONE of these goods are primarily produced in the United States.

This article took me back to those heady undergraduate days when I was learning that not every place in the world was like the United States (actually, I learned that in the navy, but still...).  An early challenge among undergraduate anthropology students is to understand how many factors influence life in a particular region and why not everyone in the world has the same opportunities that we have here.  Most of the things that we Americans tend to take for granted are all but unobtainable to kids in parts of countries like Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Lesotho, etc.  So, why is the U.S. Department of Labor applying it's definition of child labor to these countries?

Here in the U.S., it is understood that a child will attend school for roughly 12 years before either going on to college or entering the full-time working world.  In fact, it is a crime in the U.S. for a child not to either attend a school or be home-schooled by a parent or tutor.  But what about kids in places like rural Kenya or Burma where attending school may not be an option? When the nearest school is an hours-long trek and the children are needed to help support the family with labor, sometimes work is the only viable option.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it's just life.

I understand that the average person will read that article and say, "OMG! I am NEVER going to buy carpets, cocoa, coal, diamonds, garments, rice, cattle, coffee, bricks, tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, or gold until those poor children are free to go to school!"  And that's exactly what the good people at The Huffington Post want.  Stirring up people's emotions is good for readership.

Now, I'm not saying that all instances of child labor are acceptable.  In fact, the article also includes forced labor, which is something different and almost always reprehensible.  What I'm asking is for people to make an effort to understand the local socioeconomic landscape before jumping to any hasty conclusions.  Once the root causes are addressed, then we can complain about child labor.

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