Exploiting our children

child labor
Child labor

What makes human beings different from other animals? Is it because we have culture? Guess again. Bees have language. Sea otters are great inventors of tools. Gorillas have lifelong family ties; they may even fall in love.

But yes, one outstanding characteristic sets us apart although we should hardly be proud to admit it. As far as I know, we are the only species to make slaves of our own offspring.

According to an ILO survey, 168 million of the world’s children work. They make soccer balls and carpets for export. Children are also domestic workers, brick-makers, peddlers and garbage pickers. Although most child laborers live in developing countries and work in agriculture, there are also many employed in the industrialized countries.

These figures do not reveal the numbers of children who are bonded servants, sexually exploited, physically disabled due to accidents or exposed to hazardous chemicals. Yet such conditions are known to prevail in the businesses that hire children. Child soldiers, including girls, are among the most abused workers. Furthermore, the exploitation of the girl-child is hidden because no one counts unpaid child labor at home—caring for infants, fetching water, feeding animals and gathering firewood. The Beijing Platform for Action policy document adopted in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women declared the plight of the girl-child one of the Twelve Critical Areas of Concern.

It’s not that human nature is evil — that would be an oversimplification. Employers’ motives range from benevolence to pure profit. Particularly if they are relatives, those who hire children may see their gesture as a rescue operation to save the young from unscrupulous exploiters. Others are less charitable. Like lords in feudal domains, the employers decide the rules. The problem is that the political and economic structure provides no guaranteed safeguards. The owners’ personal inclinations, not laws, determine whether there are fair wages or safe work conditions.

Another unknown is why parents give up children in the first place. For profit, many critics would say. Of course, there are those who cold-heartedly sell their children like unwanted animals. On the other hand, most parents are themselves victims of circumstance — homeless, impoverished and unemployed. Refugees may seek security for daughters and “marry them off” in return for payment to local nationals. In truth, there is little information about how children are pushed out of their nests into the wilds to fend for themselves. We know that sometimes, middlemen dupe rural families and promise they will help girls find jobs. Instead they sell them into prostitution. In other cases, the problem is that a change from subsistence to cash economies puts pressure on families to earn wages. Everyone has to pitch in and older children may work to help support everyone else. In cities, work can be the lesser of two evils — youth who are employed can avoid a life of crime.

Did any of these families really have options? And why in the first place are there so many unwanted children? If women had control over their fertility, wouldn’t this help reduce the supply of poor children flowing into the labor market?

One thing is certain: modern human beings may not be born bad, but they need strong political and legal constraints to remind them of their moral responsibilities. Enter the standards and conventions — the ILO conventions, the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and other international agreements. Granted, a child is not likely to take an employer to court to defend his or her rights. Neither are labor laws easy to enforce because many child laborers work in homes and the informal sector. But these conventions are essential to raise society’s standards for decent human behavior.

The voyage from public awareness to enforcement of child labor laws may be wild and woolly, but it is well worth the political struggle. If child labor is banished, we would take a progressive step forward in human evolution that may be as significant as the domestication of animals. We will have tamed our own exploitative nature and the base human instinct of self-interest.

[1] Estimates from the US Council on Foreign Relations, see: http://www.cfr.org/human-rights/child-soldiers-around-world/p9331#p3.