July 16, 2014
Room for Debate (The New York Times), July 16, 2014
The question of child labor in developing countries is not one of whether high-income countries should impose their standards on poorer countries. It is more about whether they should take measures to reduce the pressures that come from their own corporations, generating a race to the bottom that encourages child labor.
Almost all countries have their own laws regulating child labor; the problem is enforcement. As a report last week on child factory labor in China indicates, children are employed because they can be paid less. The relentless downward pressure on wages and other costs comes from the unchecked power of global corporations that can re-locate to the lowest-cost country. It is these pressures that led to the death of more than 1100 workers in Bangladesh in April 2013, when a poorly constructed eight-story factory building collapsed. In these and other tragedies there were safety regulations on the books that would have saved people’s lives, but they were not enforced.
The United States and other developed countries once had widespread child labor and other abuses that we were able to regulate at the national level, partly because we did not face comparable blackmail from global competition. In China, wages finally rose from 60 cents per hour in 2002 to $1.74 in 2009. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage for textile workers is 33 cents per hour.
For some economists and politicians this is just the workings of the market; wages and working conditions eventually improve and production moves to poorer countries until they catch up. But this is unnecessarily brutal and wrong. In the aftermath of the Bangladesh disaster, organized public pressure forced global retailers to sign an agreement that they would compel contractors to fix fire and safety deficiencies, and pay for it. Groups like the Worker Rights Consortium have worked with unions, university purchasers, and student organizations to win agreements such as the 2009 national pact in Honduras with Russell Brand Athletics. It was unprecedented for Central America in its protection of freedom of association and workplace rights. This demonstrates that the malign influence of global corporations on local labor practices can be constrained and that when it is, workers can achieve real progress.
Regulation and collective bargaining by independent unions free from political repression are the most important means to reduce child labor and other abuses in developing countries. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not put its enormous influence on the side of enforceable labor rights in the commercial agreements that it negotiates, fighting instead for the rights of patented drug companies and other corporations to exploit global monopolies. These priorities must be changed.