This company is employing children? Let’s boycott their products! Or better not?
Regularly, media reports reveal that Western companies have children working in their manufactures in Third or Second World countries – may it be for clothing, furniture or, as recently, technical gadgets. Such reports are often followed by people calling for a boycott of the company’s products.
‘Work done by children’ is an extremely broad expression. There is nothing else than to vehemently fight against ‘work’ that goes along with gross abuse like forced labour, prostitution, involvement in drug trafficking, carrying heavy weights or any other activity putting a child’s physical or mental wellbeing in danger.
But also in cases where no such exploitation is taking place, we have good arguments against children doing work. We fear they might be ‘the cheapest to hire, the easiest to fire, and the least likely to protest.’ And we don’t want them to be deprived of the opportunity to get a proper education.
So what should we do if we read media reports about a company employing minors? Even if we don’t know the exact circumstances: joining a boycott of this company’s products can’t be wrong, can it?
It can. Even if a boycott is well-intentioned, on a practical level it might be wrong to force companies to dismiss their child workers. The main cause for children doing work is poverty – ‘their survival and that of their families depend on it’. Earning money is an unavoidable necessity for them. If they must give up their jobs in Western companies, they are forced to exchange them for something else – and this might not be to their advantage. For example, when the U.S. Congress threated to ban the import of clothing made by children under 14 in Bangladesh, around 50.000 of them went from their jobs in the relatively clean textile factories to collecting garbage, braking bricks, or even prostitution. Moreover, economic modelling research implies that in certain situations (where demand is assumed to be an elastic variable) product boycotts even can cause child labour to increase rather than decline.
Of course, the consideration that it can become even worse for children is no argument for them working in general. It rather is an argument for a well-considered approach towards this issue. Until we have tackled the problem of general poverty, rather than forcing companies to fire children – may it be via product boycott or regulations – we might think about enforcing safe work conditions for them. Pragmatically, this might be of greater help for the children involved.
But there is more to that issue than the practical level. On a moral level, many of us still wouldn’t want to buy a product manufactured by a child – even if we knew that the work conditions were optimal. We feel that it’s simply wrong that the mobile phone we are about to give our teenage daughter was put together by another 14-year-old in India. A dinner party argument why this is wrong, I reckon, might come down to something like ‘Children should not work. This Indian girl is deprived of her childhood if she has to.’
I want to suggest by no means that inequality in opportunities and wealth is a good thing to have. However, I feel that there is some sort of arrogance contained in the ‘children should not work’ argument. What childhood is and what it should consist of is a social construction to some extent. This construction highly differs between countries and across time. The firm belief that a ‘proper childhood’ does not entail any work is something specific to our time and culture. In other cultures (observed by sociologists for example in some Chinese restaurants), children are expected to work together with their parents. This happens not only out of financial need, but also as part of the family’s work ethics. And even within the Western culture, the social construction of childhood is not homogenous: Different from other children in the U.S., the Amish are allowed to leave school and start working at around the age of 14.
There is hardly any child unwilling to go to school who doesn’t hear the ‘it’s for your own good, it prepares you for adult life’ argument. Couldn’t we let count the same argument for work that helps gaining practical skills or is in line with a culture’s ethics?
Long story short: If next somebody tries to convince me to boycott a company, I think I shouldn’t join in as long as I don’t know more about the actual circumstances of the children’s work involved – both for practical and moral reasons. What do you think?