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This company is employing children? Let’s boycott their products! Or better not?

Picture taken form the Library of Congress

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?

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the post, Nadira.
    I think that your first argument has validity : we should treat the child labour question intelligently and not indulge in simplistic token solutions.
    However, your second argument does not stand up on its own : slavery, female excision, gladiatorial contests as entertainment and stoning for adultery are also to some extent social constructions. Is it arrogant to oppose them?

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Anthony!
      I think this is an interesting and somewhat tricky issue you’re bringing up: I believe that there is absolute good or bad in this world and that we need some objective standards to judge on. The fact that a certain social norm exists doesn’t make this norm right – just as in the examples you’re giving.
      But I also think that an important aspect of social constructions is that they are debatable, i.e. that we cannot tell right away which of two different constructions is the right one, if any. (And often we need to discover that something is a social construction rather than a biological necessity before we are able to change our opinion on this topic, like it happened for example with the inferiority of women or of a certain race.)
      So I don’t think it’s arrogant to oppose a social construction of others, but I think it is arrogant not to carefully consider whether theirs might be as good/right as ours – or even better. And I think this might be worthwhile doing when it comes to certain forms of child work.
      What do you think?

      1. What do I think, Nadira?
        That you’re quite right to fall neither onto the horn of relativism nor that of absolutism.
        That finding what’s left after rejecting both is not easy.
        That ethics is hard and that living a good life is harder still.
        That most of us do the best we can.

        1. Ethics is hard indeed… As a scientist (experimental psychology), I’m in the comfortable position to be able to only observe such issues and to leave the (professional) moral judgements to other (more qualified) people when it get’s really tough. And I’m very keen on hearing these judgements. I’m always happy when someone responds to my blog posts and enriches or challenges my lay intuitions. … In other words: Many thanks for replying!

          1. This is the direction I try to take such discussions when they come up, though most people feel very uncomfortable with the fact that there might not be a clear wrong in even this case. I have to say though, that I disagree with scientists not having a responsibility to take a position, discuss that position, and act accordingly to ensure their work is not corrupted. I even think that if this means a scientist hast to turn down a project or job, that price should not be too high to pay. Once you put the knowledge out there, you are at least partly responsible for what is done with it. I am a scientist too, so I am not preaching from the outside, but too often it is assumed that these is no responsibility there, and I disagree.

  2. I agree with the first argument. When we think about whether or not to boycott child labour we have to think about the consequences of doing so for the children who conduct that labour. We cannot just think about keeping our own hands clean. If working in a reasonably clean factory is the best of the options open to a child, this gives one reason not to oppose it, though this should not stop one from thinking it would be better were the world structured in such a way that children (esp. young children) do not have to work out of necessity.

    I would like to add another, small point. It is important not to romanticize childhood or foist western views of it on others. However, it is hard to deny that to fare well a child requires happiness, valuable relationships, the development of her intellectual capacities, and play. Not all forms of work are inconsistent with promoting these goods; in fact, some work helps to realize them. But where work or labour is inconsistent with the realization of these goods and therefore a child’s welfare we have some reason to protest against it. At the very least a reasonably robust conception of child welfare may be of some use in determining whether or not cultural norms about how to treat children are in fact acceptable.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting on my post, Anthony (again)!

      I fully agree with you. I also prefer a world where children don’t have to work out of necessity over a world where they have to, so my first “recommendation” really is a pragmatic one based on how suboptimal our world currently is.

      Thank you also for your addition to my second point. Again, I fully agree. I think whether or not the work in question helps realising the goods you mention for the child’s welfare is the basis on which this work should be judged as good or bad. However, what IS the child’s welfare and what helps her “improving her character” might be hard to determine, right? (One could argue: Some children in the Western world are really unhappy in school so this good might be sometimes endangered in the “Western approach” as well. And children in other parts of the world might develop the intellectual capacities that are relevant for their future lives better by working in a family business than by sitting in class…)

  3. Hello Nadira. You’ve put together a thought provoking post here. Clearly, a scenario in which children are exploited for cheap labour is completely unacceptable. But you raise an interesting point when discussing the Amish tradition of young children working to benefit the community.

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