Child labour: the baby dragon

Child of the DragonNeil Blakey-Milner asked the following, in response to my previous post on fear of trade with China and protectionism. It’s a good question, worthy of a detailed response.

What should a country do about imports from countries that are known to be or highly suspected of using child labour or other forms of “slave” labour or other techniques that are banned by that country?

First, let’s stipulate that only a small fraction of the trade that ends up being restricted by tariffs or other forms of protectionism is, by this standard, objectionable, and that this fraction represents an extreme-case scenario. I’ll focus mostly on child labour in my response, but similar arguments go for other forms of labour policy on which prosperous nations frown.

Let me first try to be somewhat specific: Africa, not Asia, has the highest child labour force participation rate in the world. According to UNICEF, almost one in three African children work, while the corresponding figure for Asia is one in five. That Asian statistic is not much worse than that in Latin America or the Middle East. Why China should be singled out for censure is unclear to me.

Moreover, child labour below the age of 16 is illegal in China. The International Labour Organisation recommends a minimum working age of 15, and China has ratified the relevant convention. So the problem is not one of legal labour standards either.