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.

Some statistics on child labour (such as this survey) include an under-18 category: “The participation rate of Asian children in the 15–17 years age group in economic activities, 48.4 per cent, is the highest in the world,” the survey says. Considering the ILO’s definition of child labour, this type of research is misleading, and exaggerates the problem it is designed to address.

This points to a core problem with terms like “child labour”, “sweat shops”, or the phrase you used, “slave labour”. They’re designed to evoke an emotional reaction. When phrased in such black-and-white terms, what sensible rich-world person would not instinctively oppose it?

Even more problematic, describing “sweat shops” or “child labour” as “slave labour” is misleading. While slave labour may well occur, and any coercive labour is obviously immoral, not all child labour or low-wage labour is in fact slave labour. A great deal of it is perfectly voluntary, enjoying where necessary the consent of parents.

So the situation we’re really talking about is this: In some cases, China may be unable to universally apply its own labour laws.

Since China does have such laws, since those laws do comply with international standards to which China has agreed, and it is in any case not up to one country to determine what constitutes acceptable legal standards or law enforcement in another country, I can’t see why such a country should do anything about imports from China at all.

Consumers are welcome to boycott products they suspect are made by child labour, or in sweat shops, of course. But that is a decision of conscience, and is up to the consumer.

Those who feel that China’s labour standards are not up to scratch have no right whatsoever to enforce that judgement on others in their own country by advocating binding trade sanctions. Doing so would clearly harm others at home, who are forced to buy goods from elsewhere, even if they are more expensive, or forgo them altogether. This reduces the real income of the poor, and raise the real cost of business, thereby exacerbating poverty at home.

Worse, the hope that this policy will have the desired effect in China is also vain. Authoritative numbers on child labour in China appear hard to come by. However, estimating from an array of statistics of varying reliability and relevance, only a fraction of one percentage point of the Chinese population are children under 16 who do not go to school and who do more than “light work”. Of those, the vast majority are over 10, contrary to many of the heartrending publicity photographs. So a blanket instrument like trade tariffs or import restrictions would penalise millions upon millions of perfectly honest adults in China, who by any standards have every right to work.

Moral crusades may make people feel good, but they don’t necessarily have the desired policy consequences.

Consider the opposite view. Personally, I can’t justify refusing to trade with someone who earns what I would consider a pittance, because by doing so, I condemn them not to a higher-paying job (or leisure time, in the case of underage workers), but to abject poverty. I feel good when I buy something from a poor but hard-working person and this trade betters their lives, by their own standards. (That it does cannot be in dispute, because otherwise they wouldn’t have entered into the transaction.)

In fact, it is possible to make a strong argument in favour of permitting voluntary child labour. Consider this article, on Child Labour and the British Industrial Revolution (part two here). It quotes Ludwig von Mises, who in his book, Human Action ((Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, is available for free download in PDF format.)) notes the following:

It is a distortion of facts to say that the factories carried off the housewives from the nurseries and the kitchen and the children from their play. These women had nothing to cook with and to feed their children. These children were destitute and starving. Their only refuge was the factory. It saved them, in the strict sense of the term, from death by starvation.

The main characteristic of the industrial phenomenon of child labour is, in fact, a move away form coercive labour to voluntary labour. It created new opportunities for building skills and prosperity, and when parents became sufficiently prosperous to support children for longer, they not only were free to do so, but did so. Ironically, the same freedom did not hold for children dependent on the state. Orphans and other wards of the state under the Poor Laws were habitually forced into unpaid, bonded labour, or condemned to earning a bare subsistence in workhouses.

A similar argument can be made in favour of so-called sweat shops. See, for example, an Austrian School defence of sweatshops by Thomas J. DiLorenzo.

Even if you — and the law — frown on child labour, or the less well-defined “sweat shops”, I know what I’d rather do than starve: I’d rather work. Even as a comparatively rich Westerner, I had a formal, paid job at age 12. My mother helped in her father’s shop as a child. I did too, at the age of nine, but he’s dead so you can’t prosecute him anymore.

The point is that denying poor people that same right, ostensibly in their own interests, is wrong. Even the ILO agrees that children as young as 12 should be permitted to do relatively light, non-dangerous work.

So now, instead of people who object to child labour, we have people who object to minimum wage measures, rules that create inflexibility in the labour market, or laws that ban people, including children, from accepting work on voluntary terms. They believe this from perfectly sound motives: they argue that such laws increase poverty and restrict liberty, therefore they’re morally unjustifiable.

What should those people do? Boycott countries that enact such laws? Given the pervasiveness of welfare-state labour laws, this would leave them with precious few trading options, but yes, they could do this. Could they demand that the state raises tariffs on those countries to prevent fellow-citizens who don’t share their views from trading with such countries? That would be unjust not only to states who exercise their sovereign right to determine their own social norms and laws, but also to their fellow-citizens.

Either way, the argument holds for anyone who objects to labour laws or working conditions or law enforcement elsewhere. Preventing other South Africans from trading with China is unjust to China, unjust to a majority of Chinese, and unjust to the South Africans whose prosperity you’re curbing, whose liberty you’re restricting and whose conscience you’re overruling.

So what should a country do? Absolutely nothing. There are better ways to solve the world’s problems. And since almost all of them are solved either directly by prosperity, or require resources to solve them, measures that increase poverty and limit growth, such as trade barriers, are particularly insiduous.

  • hmmmm

    do you know how many child laybourers there are in China?

  • Ivo Vegter

    I like your idea about Nike. Except that I wouldn’t want to see this enforced as a law. I’d propose it to Nike itself as a marketing exercise. They may just find that a lot of consumers appreciate the gesture, and won’t mind paying a small “social responsibility surcharge” on a pair of shoes. Could earn Nike extra market share, which helps to address the problem, and gives Nike customers bragging rights too.

    You’re right, the free market debate is for another time. Let’s just say I disagree with you :-)

  • cthinc

    “the choice between working in a sweat shop and working as a subsistence farmer is a free choice. That choice is only made when the individual believes that more value can be obtained for their labour in a factory than on a farm. Various factors may influence this subjective value decision, but for someone else to question them and tell someone they’re not permitted to choose one, or the other, seems to me an unjust encroachment on their liberty.”

    – I agree that it is an encroachment to limit such choices; my position is not that ‘we’ tell Chinese youth that they can’t work in sweatshops but rather that we try create better alternatives for them to choose between.

    As a thumbsucked alternative, for instance, legislation whereby companies had to ensure that a certain minimum fair percentage of the sale price of any item produced was paid directly to the labour responsible (eg. Nike being obliged [via the ILO and 3rd-party auditing perhaps] to guarantee each worker got a minimum of n% of the sale price of a pair of shoes) springs to mind. This would not, in my mind, prejudice any particular region based on its unique employment regulations, etc.

    In short, it becomes an ethical question of what the ‘rich world’ can and should do to create a more evolved set of choices for the majority of its labour force, as well as a call to question fairly how what we currently do (through production and consumption patterns, our current economic model, etc.) can be said to encourage and perpetuate the diminished range of options (‘degree of freedom’) currently available to said labourers.

    As to the larger solution you refer to (‘the free market system will regulate for the good of all’), that topic commands a whole new discussion :-) I will merely add that I regard the axioms of this system as concerningly myopic and based on a flawed and limiting model of interaction between ‘agents’. has some interesting reading on this matter.

  • Ivo Vegter

    The liberty is entirely yours. Welcome :-)

    Your points are well made, though I have a couple of comments on them:

    In your second point in particular you address the nature of a voluntary action. You are, of course, quite right that no action is entirely voluntary, inasmuch most are enforced upon us by the forces of nature — the need to stay alive. However, a more useful distinction is between actions that are chosen by an individual (however necessary or unnecessary such an action might be in the eyes of another) and an action that is enforced on someone by threat of violence. The latter includes legal coercion by the state or coercion by a private person. The former is justified in most sensible societies only when one person infringes the right of another to the sanctity of his person or the free enjoyment of the fruits of his labour (property). Laws against murder, theft, and fraud, for example, may be coercive in one sense, but they prevent coercion in another. The latter would include, for example, slavery or indentured labour, but does not include a voluntary contract (such as for work) that two parties can enter and leave at their own discretion.

    In this sense, and partly to address your third point, the choice between working in a sweat shop and working as a subsistence farmer is a free choice. That choice is only made when the individual believes that more value can be obtained for their labour in a factory than on a farm. Various factors may influence this subjective value decision, but for someone else to question them and tell someone they’re not permitted to choose one, or the other, seems to me an unjust encroachment on their liberty.

    As for the solutions, I’ve pointed before to some specific actions. I believe the most sustainable long-term solution is simple economic progress. It worked in Britain, it worked elsewhere in the rich world, and there is no reason to believe that the laws of basic economics have suddenly changed. This progress can be assisted (and possibly greatly) through public education, through consumer pressure brought to bear on global brands, through private charity, and so on. Coercive intervention, however, is on balance more likely to cause harm than good. Moreover, unlike markets, which operate at a very fine-grained level, laws and regulations are blunt instruments that are almost impossible to write sufficiently narrowly. They are exactly the sort of simplistic tool you describe: do X and expect Y as the outcome. They are also slower than markets to react to unintended consequences. Laws are, in extremis, a last resort. Ideally, they shouldn’t be used as policy instruments at all.

    Interesting discussion, and thanks for participating. Though I’d hate to do a word-count right now…

  • cthinc

    Allow me the liberty of entering this discussion anonymously and at a pretty late stage. I will address only the ‘gist’ of the argument as stated below and will thus avoid restating claims that the kind of libertarian logic espoused here leads to a race to the bottom among other things (although here I do, however, concur).

    To quote Ivo, “The gist of my argument is that it isn’t fair for the South African government to ban, restrict or tax trade with 1.3 billion Chinese, in order to punish it for the unfair or unjust or illegal labour practices of a tiny minority of its companies.”

    – Firstly, it is worth considering your measure of legality: you employ the authority of the International Labour Organisation as well as China’s own labour laws to frame your subsequent assertions that, as the majority of instances of child labour in China are within the bounds of these laws, they are somehow more more defensible; in my mind, however, laws of this nature are historically contingent entities that can and should be changed when they fail to meet the criteria for our ever-evolving ethical values.

    – Secondly, voluntarism is itself a matter of degree; no action is every entirely voluntary, being conditioned in part by necessity, social and economic context, misinformation or lack of information, etc. So, as ‘dripab’ eloquently states, the ‘fact’ of the voluntary nature of most ‘sweatshop’ labour in China is questionable.

    – Thirdly, you address the sad fact that China has a low per-capita income and that the commonly accepted alternative to engaging in exploitative labour is starvation. This binary is dubious for two reasons: firstly because, in China, there is in many cases subsistence farming to fall back on (it is often the need to consume, not survive that draws young people to the sweatshops) and secondly because if the only options available to young people amount to enforcement of necessary evils, it is worth drawing attention to these and pursuing alternative solutions instead of maintaining this unjust state of affairs.

    – Finally, it is probably true that a simple ban on Chinese imports will achieve mixed ends (on the up-side it may encourage local industry, while on the down-side it might push up the cost of necessary items, putting them out of reach of the poor in our country) – such a ban (or rather, taxation or restrictions) could however form part of an effective solution to the problem: coupling trade restrictions with public education, corporate lobbying, discussions with international regulatory bodies (the UN, etc) and, on a more basic level, reconsidering the needs and wants of both the exploited party and the ‘rich world’ consumers all represent part of a way forward that relies on more than simplistically represented threats (stop doing X or I won’t give you Y).

    One could imagine, if I may go out on a limb a bit, similar considerations being brought into play when questioning the ethics of slavery a few hundred years ago….

  • Shaun McDonald

    Child pornography and child prostitution are banned worldwide. Their makers, purveyors and facilitators receive nothing less than the full weight of the law whenever they are apprehended, and rightly so.

    I have nothing against pornography or prostitution per se. Though I may not agree with either of these things, they are almost certainly more acceptable to me when they are practiced by adults of consenting age, because I believe that they are experienced enough to make a conscious choice regarding their life-styles and activities. I do not feel the same way about young children. Can you see how this might map to my opinions regarding child labour?

    How does wanting a policy of catching individual human rights violators and punishing them severely equate with posturing? I want these blighters brought to book. If indeed they are a small minority, why haven’t the Chinese government rooted them out and sent them packing?

  • Ivo Vegter

    My emotional reaction isn’t particularly relevant. But if you do abhor those things, should you advocate policies that have good intentions but in reality make matters worse? If I oppose prostitution, on whatever grounds — moral judgement, exploitation of women, degrading treatment — I can ban it. Or I can recognise that banning it merely drives it underground and makes the problem I’m trying to address worse.

    Same here. I may well abhor the idea of children having to work for a living. I may abhor the idea of people that work for peanuts, or can’t find work at all. But if I recognise that I can’t just ban unemployment, or horrid jobs, why should I be in favour of policies that will make matters worse, just so I can posture as someone who appears to care?

  • Shaun McDonald

    Not too long ago. foreign governments did ban their businesses from trading with South Africa due to human rights violations, thought this had little effect. Civil unrest and the relentless bombing campaign that the ANC engaged in was probably what caused the then incumbent to reconsider its policies. (In case you missed it, this is actual proof that terrorism works.)

    Before you retire this evening, ask yourself this question: Would you purchase child pornography, as long as the underage actresses and actors had signed the release form? Would you solicit sex from a child prostitute? Would you befriend or even tolerate any one who engaged in these activities? Then ask yourself this question: Why is it that you find the above abhorrent?

  • Ivo Vegter

    Good comparison. South Africa being fairly famous for its murder rate, should foreign governments ban their companies from doing business with us? To teach our government a lesson about enforcing the law?

    In your second example, my reasoning would get you locked up for assault. However, if you asked them to work for pay, and they agreed, presumably they did so because the alternative, for them, would be worse. If someone works for what you consider to be a pittance, don’t you think they’d choose another job, if it were available? Don’t you think they’d refuse the work, if the alternative was better?

    I don’t like it any more than you do, but I don’t see how a simple ban on “sweat shops” (with hours and pay arbitrarily determined) is going to solve the problem. I do see, and history bears me out, how building up prosperity over time solves these problems. In rich countries, rich parents support their children throughout schooling — and often much longer. In rich countries, people choose jobs with reasonable conditions. That is progress. Measures that prevent poor people from getting rich in the first place are regressive, in my view.

    And no, I learnt my economics the hard way. Nobody “has” anything on me. (At least not that I know of.) Nobody is paying me to write this. (I wish.) I make these arguments because I think they are right: they are more likely to create more prosperity for more people in less time. And that prosperity will solve more problems, for more people, than good intentions and politically-correct idealism. Both history and theory bear this out, so I defend these points vigorously. It simple, really. Embarrassingly altruistic, now that I put it like that, but simple.

  • Shaun McDonald

    If a law is unenforceable, it is as useful as a water-proof tea-bag or a one-piece jigsaw puzzle.

    The fact that there is a law against murder doesn’t stop murder from being committed. It is true that murderers and rapists constitute a small minority of society, but ask yourself this question: do we tolerate them because they sometimes hand over some of their ill-gotten gains to local hookers or drug-dealers, or do we generally insist they be apprehended and brought to book for their crimes? Now ask yourself this question: what is it about business that makes you believe they should be immune to the laws that govern the rest of society?

    If I abused my own children, government would take them from me, incarcerate me, and place them in foster care, but by your own reasoning, if I’d hired someone else’s children off the street for a few dollars, and beat them senseless while insisting that they sewed together 2 dozen pairs of shoes, that would be above board because they’d entered into a voluntary agreement with me, and after all, being abused is all right, as long as they don’t starve? What have these folk got on you, Ivo, that you feel you need to defend their wiley ways so vigorously?

    How old does one have to be before one can sign contracts that are binding and legal? Why do you think there is an age limit on these agreements?

    As I have said in previously in this thread, blanket boycotts are more water-proof tea-bags, as they never actually hurt the folk they’re meant to. Individual human rights violators should be singled out and punished, as an example to others.

    Businesses who turn a blind eye, or actively support these sorts of violations deserve a fate far worse than mere failure.

  • Ivo Vegter

    And as I pointed out right at the start, there is a law against it. In China. A law that exceeds International Labour Organisation standards, to boot.

    I still fail to see why we should boycott all Chinese imports for its inability to universally enforce its own laws (let alone your own subjective moral choices).

  • Shaun McDonald

    Ivo, by living in a particular country, and making use of it’s infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, water and other essential services, and having the ability to vote, you are in fact entering into a legal contract with the incumbent of said country. The agreement may be unspoken, but by good capitalist principles, if you are going to make use of the facilities, you need to pay for them. Not all taxes are bad.

    If you truly believe there is no threat of violence on the factory floor, then more power to you, and be so kind as to pass whatever it is you’re smoking, snorting or ingesting in my general direction. Conditions in some of these places are nothing less than diabolical.

    Suffice to say that your example of working in your father’s shop is not comparable, unless your father forced you to work 16 hours a day to earn your keep, and beat you with a rubber hose whenever the till take was lighter than he would have liked.

    You can’t compare angle-grinders with aardvarks, Mr Vegter.

    From what I have read, most of these ‘burdensome regulations’ of which you speak, require businesses to treat their employees with dignity and respect. If they find this prospect too taxing or irksome, perhaps it would be better to establish themselves elsewhere. The moon, sans NASA (ie. government) life-support might be a good place.

    As to your employment vs imports argument, can you really sleep at night knowing that there are literally thousands of people who are starving so that you could buy cheaper t-shirts? That these folk will be taken up and treated well by more efficient industries is a red herring, sir – you have only to look at current unemployment statistics to see this supposition for the self-soothing fallacy that it is.

    Children should be in school, being educated and given choices as to which paths they will take in the future. Working for a pittance to make soft toys or sneakers hardly sounds like ‘prospects’ to me. Perhaps we were taught from different dictionaries?

    Many of the children we are talking about are not teenagers, Ivo. After all, 15 is a perfectly employable age. Children much younger are than this are working to make the cheap imports so beloved by soulless, spineless entrepreneurs the world over.

    Employing a teenager is not a human rights violation, sir – having the child work in squalid, dangerous conditions, with the daily threat of violence for very little compensation most certainly is. That’s the sort of thing there ought to be a law against, because it goes a long way toward curtailing the plundering rights of the briefcase bandits and red-handed robber-barons whose causes you’re forever trumpeting.

  • Ivo Vegter

    No, government coercion is not comparable to contract law. With contract law, such as a work contract or debt, the penalty for breach is not a threat of force. There is no threat of violence. By contrast, a government uses the threat of force to impose its laws on citizens, whether they like it or not.

    To illustrate the difference, perhaps it is worth noting that there’s only one debt you can go to prison for: debt to the tax man. Even if you never agreed to it.

    Having said that, companies that are subject to overly high taxes, burdensome regulations or other factors that make the prospect of profiting in a country to risky, will leave. That’s not a solution, that’s a problem.

    On imports and unemployment: that’s not the whole story. Yes, imports from a more efficient producer can indeed put the owners of inefficient industries out of business, and the workers in inefficient industries out of work. However, the capital that was invested in such a business doesn’t just disappear. It gets reallocated to more profitable businesses. I’d wager that new employment in efficient industries will exceed the redundant employment in inefficient industries. Even if that wasn’t the case, however, maintaining inefficient industries reduces overall prosperity in the economy. This can most easily be seen by moving the focus from a few thousand workers to millions of consumers. They, after all, bear the brunt of the higher prices that result from trade barriers. Their real income is reduced, because they now have to pay more of their annual income to purchase (for example) clothes. This is money that cannot be invested in a house, or spent on healthcare, or used for school fees. The difference may not be much to you and me, but it is a lot to people who have little.

    On the US and Iraq: free trade doesn’t topple dictators. Bad example. Granted, if they wanted Iraq’s oil so bad, they could have bought it for far, far cheaper than they’re “stealing” it for now.

    Finally, let’s assuming for the sake of argument that it is, in fact, a human rights violation to employ a teenager. Those under-age workers may be a tiny minority in a country of 1.3 billion people, and their growing prosperity may not make much of an impact on China’s growth, but that’s still a few million kids you’re proposing to put on the street with no prospects whatsoever. For their own good, you say. Because they shouldn’t have the choice between hard work and starvation, they should rather starve?

    Instead of banning the practice, which on balance is detrimental, or punishing China for failing in its attempts to ban it, which has vastly larger negative effects, I’d far rather see people who rage emotionally about the injustice of it all to put their money where their mouth is. Why don’t they, instead of advocating laws to magically make the world’s problems go away, instead fund a charity that pays for some of these kids to go to school, for example? That gives them a hand up to the quality of life they’re working towards themselves.

    To quote Thomas Sowell again, “When your response to everything that is wrong with the world is to say, ‘there ought to be a law,’ you are saying that you hold freedom very cheap.”

  • Shaun McDonald

    According to your own reasoning, employees cannot be coerced, because they joined the company of their own free will. Would I be correct in saying that likewise, corporations cannot be coerced because they have built and maintained facilities in a particular country of their own free will? By this train of thought, both would appear to have entered into legal contracts, and coercion, government-based or otherwise, disappears in a puff of logic?

    Is it not true that unrestricted imports of Chinese textiles have seen a great many poor South Africans join the swelling ranks of the unemployed? Perhaps if you were more concerned about creating prosperity at home, you might agree that limited protectionism does make sense when you have in excess of 55% unemployment.

    That being said, I don’t think trade sanctions are an effective instrument for bringing about reform. By the same token, I don’t believe that economic liberalization is the silver bullet you claim it to be. If what you say is true, and prosperity does indeed cure all social and economic ills, why did the US opt for invasion instead of free trade with Iraq?

    I’m in agreement with dripab in one aspect. Known human rights violators should be penalized. If indeed they are a tiny minority, them cleaning up their act, or closing up shop should have little impact of China’s economic growth.

  • dripab

    You don’t have to “ban, restrict or tax trade with 1.3 billion Chinese, in order to punish it for the unfair or unjust or illegal labour practices of a tiny minority of its companies”. You can just control trade with that “tiny” minority! What’s wrong with taxing Nike and redistributing the money to the workers that are abused by Nike’s subsidiaries? That would also protect South-African businesses from unhealthy competition by nike.

    If you oppose human rights violations, why would you oppose supporting human rights violations, i.e. paying businesses inflicting such violations?

    All of your 2 arguments why free trade will improve working conditions were proven wrong.

  • Ivo Vegter

    No, it wouldn’t be fair to say so. The gist of my argument is that it isn’t fair for the South African government to ban, restrict or tax trade with 1.3 billion Chinese, in order to punish it for the unfair or unjust or illegal labour practices of a tiny minority of its companies.

    But now that you mention it, you don’t see a contradiction in “coercion” of people who “are there because of their own volition”? How is that coercion? Oh, you don’t have a choice except to work? Here I thought people get fed and clothed automagically by the infinite resources of the omnipotent and benevolent state.

    Yes, you do have a choice to buy Chinese goods or not. I never disputed that you have a choice. But you don’t have the right to impose your choice by force on others. Especially not when those others believe your choice will in fact cause MORE 10-year-olds to sew designer shirts for slave wages. Your good intentions or moral outrage aren’t enough to coerce others into doing as you say.

    As Thomas Sowell says: “Policies are judged by their consequences, but crusades are judged by how good they make the crusaders feel.”

    And no, the perfect free market does not require perfect information. The entire point is that no market participant ever has perfect information. But the chance that among multiple market participants, the information is better than when you rely on a single central authority is rather large.

    And no, I never opposed making people aware of which brands are engaging in what you consider less than wonderful practices. I opposed banning me from trading with those companies, based on your subjective value judgement. Nor banning me from working for those companies, when my subjective value judgement says it is the only chance I have of escaping poverty.

    Customer demand, in some cases, may well force such companies to clean up their act. If so, good on you. But in many cases, it won’t. Worse, in general, it is guaranteed to decrease the very prosperity that is needed to make a lasting change.

    What ultimately forced companies in the rich west to clean up their act is not trade sanctions by foreign governments. It was simple prosperity. Parents could afford to support their children until they’re 33, and employees became wealthy enough to negotiate for better working conditions. It had nothing to with market pressure, or government action.

    What I opposed is not your right to disagree with Chinese labour conditions, nor your right not to buy Chinese goods. What I opposed is your right to impose that choice (i) on poor South Africans, and (ii) on people who believe trade is a more sustainable and certain solution to the poverty that causes Chinese labour conditions.

  • Shaun McDonald

    Would it be fair to say that the gist of your argument is that government coercion of business is unfair and immoral, and that corporate coercion of employees is acceptable because the employees are there of there own volition?

    Don’t corporates build facilities of their own volition, in countries of their choice? If so, could it be said that they were entering into a voluntary contract with their host country, and so should be subject to the rule of law there?

    Child labour might be against the law in China – this doesn’t stop business from doing whatever it can to cut costs and be more competitive. If that means employing 10-year-olds to sew designer shirts for slave-wages, so be it. You have a choice to buy them or not.

    Moral outrage does nothing to deter these folk. Money talks. The perfect free market requires perfect information to be available to all parties participating in transactions. If consumers are made aware of which brands are engaging in less than wonderful practices, their purchasing patterns might change, which could cause the offending brands to either clean up their act, or close up shop.

    What do you think?

  • dripab

    Yes, you are leading us around in circles. Whenever an arguement of yours is jeopardized, you keep moving between rephrasing it, not mentioning it again and pointing out what you were *not* saying.

    Human rights violations by businesses are directly and intentionally inflicted by businesses, *not* by someone else like nature or statutes. The minority opinion you have linked to ignores this very simple truth.

    If you are not willing to rethink your point of view but keep saying that all has been said, there’s not much left here to take serious.

  • Ivo Vegter

    Hang on a second, Mr McDonald. While I appreciate your appreciation, the argument was that whatever your view on the matter, trade sanctions aren’t the answer.

    Then I explained the two opposing views, noting that indentured labour is bad, but government poor laws have historically been the biggest cause of this.

    Then, the argument was that even if it’s bad, banning it make matters worse, because instead of bad conditions, workers now get to starve, rather than being able to build up the kind of prosperity that gives them the choices you and I have.

    Where did I ever say child labour (or indentured labour) is desirable?

    Don’t read into my arguments what I did not say. I can be entirely opposed to something, yet still not wish it banned. I can oppose something, yet also oppose simplistic measures that are intended to prevent it but instead make things worse. Or should I just get all emotional and wish upon a falling star instead?

  • Shaun McDonald

    You’re truly remarkable, sir.

    You have a wonderful ability to take the most awful, immoral and dehumanizing practices of the corporates and multinationals, and re-frame them as absolutely moral, and indeed, even uplifting to the very people they’re crushing under foot.

    I am in awe of your linguistic and persuasive acumen. You could be Chief Media Lliason for the White House and Nike simultaneously :)

    *tips hat*

  • dripab

    Again, you fail to explain what’s voluntary about the choice between death and child labour and why such pseudo-voluntariness is the crucial reason why child labour should be permitted.

    You said: “Rising economic freedom is strongly correlated with lower poverty rates, better working conditions and higher living standards.” In fact, empirically, rising economic freedom is correlated to growth in *GDP*. However, it is well known and experienced that poverty rates might just as well increase instead of decrease, despite a growth in GDP. Economic freedom may be helpful, but rarely does it lead to reduced poverty on its own. Your argument that, while economy in China is booming, businesses will have to compete for workers and therefore better labour conditions is puzzling. Does it really look like Chinese businesses of the branches in which human rights issues occur will soon have to compete for workers?!

    Companies like Nike do not maintain a good brand image by securing at least human rights standards but instead by not committing human rights violations themselves and claiming to not be aware that any such violations could possibly be committed by the Chinese producers (whom they pay $ 4 for a pair of shoes). Consumer awareness is going to defeat human rights violations in China? Like civil courage has defeated street crime?

    Labour violating human rights is toxic medicine where better medicine is as well available. If other businesses are respecting human rights, why shouldn’t Nike and their Chinese subsidiaries? If it’s merely due to profit and competition, why not (1) impose extra tariffs for Nike imports to South-Africa and (2) ensure that South-African businesses pay minimum amounts to subsidiaries in China, when directly importing from them? Thereby, that extra part of the profit (the unjust benefit due to human rights violations) could be redistributed to those who were violated, who could then feel secure enough to insist on not being beaten when asking for a toilet break. The rights of the child, physical integrity and to freely chose whether to work or not are so basic and simple, it wouldn’t take much to enforce them. It wouldn’t harm competition but, to the contrary, ensure that businesses in South-Africa can compete with Chinese businesses without anyone violating human rights.

    The only good argument against effective trade policies is that western businesses would need to pay more for products from China and would partly (in cases of low priced products) need to raise retail prices accordingly. People who value this own economic detriment more than other people’s human rights like to assert that *any* kind of trade policy would have immoral effects / lead to cruel punishment of the poor, hide that human rights violations are directly inflicted by businesses instead of by nature or politics and that aiding someone in need does not justify inflicting a wholly new quality of violation. If a man says to a dozen of girls who are hanging at the edge of a cliff “Feel free to reach for my hand, if you want me to rescue and violate you”, it is not immoral to force him to at least not commit the violation.

    • Ivo Vegter

      Okay, okay, I get it. You’re not going to read the links I posted, and you’re going to continue arguing whether or not child labour is a good thing, as if I said it was.

      I pointed out right from the start that child labour is, in fact, illegal in China, so there’s plenty reason why Nike and its Chinese subsidiaries should “respect human rights”. I also pointed out that prosperity has eliminated child labour in the West, and can be expected to do so elsewhere. Now given that there’s an argument to be made why low-wage labour instead of no work at all is in fact a human right, and given that the “economic detriment” of which you speak includes penalising very poor South Africans, and given that you’d penalise a billion honest and fair Chinese by using the blunt and indiscriminate weapon of tariffs, and that such tariffs are highly unlikely to effect the change you desire anyway, I disagree that tariffs are an appropriate policy response to a labour policy of which you disapprove.

      Much in the same way that it is reasonable to argue that prohibition is a poor policy response to the scourge of alcoholism, or criminalising prostitution is a poor policy response to exploitation of sex workers, or the war on drugs is a poor policy response to the evils of drug use. You can argue that coercive state intervention is inappropriate and unjust, without in any way justifying alcoholism, prostitution or drug use. Same with child labour: I’m arguing against using counter-productive, unfair and coercive measures, no matter what your position on the moral justification of child labour, and no matter what China’s actual success at combating it is.

      But we’re going around in circles.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I didn’t back up my statements on voluntary labour because (a) it seems self-evident to me that voluntary labour is at worst less evil than slavery, (b) I presented it as an argument that was made and extensively addressed in the links I provided in my original post, and (c) whether or not you agree isn’t the point — the point is whether trade barriers or trade sanctions are a moral and effective way of addressing the problem, if indeed a problem exists.

    Rising economic freedom is strongly correlated with lower poverty rates, better working conditions and higher living standards. Coincidence? I think not. China is no exception, even if it remains unfree, especially outside the high-growth urban areas.

    My point is that you cannot promote economic freedom by adopting measures that restrict such freedom. And even if you think it’s okay to do so, that’s your choice. You certainly don’t have the right to ask the state to impose on me an obligation not to trade with China, when I think that is the most immoral thing you could possibly do if you want to help the Chinese out of poverty.

    The “rules” of competition improve working conditions because CEOs must compete for labour. And the richer that labour is, the better the working conditions they must offer to attract and retain good labour. Furthermore, in a competitive market, companies also must maintain a good brand image, because as Nike discovered, customers have free choices too.

    As for what happened during the Industrial Revolution, may I refer you again to the links I provided, which you evidently haven’t read. They argued that it was the state, far more than business, which violated human rights, by enacting laws that forced poor people into bonded labour and indentured apprenticeships. Those are nice terms for “slavery”. So much for labour laws. In the end, for all the good that “public awareness” or political action did, these measures required rising prosperity to solve the problem in the end. You cannot just enact labour laws and wish the prerequisite prosperity that pay for them into existence.

    You accuse me of using “distortive terms”, yet you contend I said something about “abatement of human rights violations”. I did not. I argued that prosperity growth and poverty reduction is the only sustainable way to improve working conditions, so punishing a country for harsh working conditions by imposing policies that reduce growth and increase poverty is a perverse form of punishment that can only make matters worse.

    Perhaps you’d care to explain how, if you ban trade with every Chinese company, this will improve labour conditions? In what way, for example, does such a policy reward Chinese companies that don’t use child labour, or offer working conditions and wages that you, in your infinite wisdom of what Chinese workers want, consider good enough?

    I don’t doubt your good intentions. You wish to see improved working conditions in China. Good for you. But you have yet to explain how trade policies that can only reduce prosperity, that dump workers into unemployment and that cause worse working conditions for the rest, achieve this aim. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Your proposed policy strikes me as washing your hands of the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t trade with China, then what the Chinese do isn’t your responsibility, is it?

    And no, I can’t come up with any idea how trade measures could be designed to improve serious human rights violations. Nevermind that we disagree about what constitutes serious human rights violations, but even if we did agree on that, I have just spent all this time arguing that restrictions on free trade can only make matters worse.

    Causing unemployment and increasing poverty, because you wish to force an improvement in the working conditions of those who remain employed, is itself a “serious human rights violation”, perpetrated by those who advocate coercive measures on the part of the state. Restricting trade is one such coercive and counter-productive measure. So I’m not interested in how it could be designed. I’m interested in not designing it at all.

  • dripab

    Do you realize that coercive child labour and child labour under the threat of death is not just a “more stark” evil than work as a “burger flipper, store clerk and the dole” but raises humanitarian concerns that should not be dealt with by shrugging “You may not like this, but it’s reality. You can’t just wish it away”, like: Tough cookies. My job ain’t much fun either?

    Again, you are emphasizing the argument of “voluntariness”, neither admitting that it is pointless, nor backing it up.

    The low Chinese GDP is not a reason why the problem cannot be helped but it is part of the problem. Guess why subsidiaries (registered in China) are hardly paid anything from Nike & Co (not registered in China)! Certainly not because free trade and unchecked economy have improved labour conditions.

    You are suggesting that working conditions improve with the rise in businesses’ profits. Please explain under which circumstances the rules of competition make CEOs willing to improve working conditions. Free trade and unchecked economy *do not* reduce human rights violations, neither do they automatically bring prosperity to people in poverty. During Industrialization, human rights violations by businesses first became a mass phenomenon until muckrakers raised public awareness, urging politicians to enact labour laws (and effectively enforce them). The abatement of human rights violations is not a “perverse form of punishment” for children in poverty, losing their job. Again, you are using a distortive term.

    Instead of hearing more “You may not like this, but it’s reality”, I’d like to know whether you are willing to consider that restrictions on free trade and/or effective labour laws could improve serious human rights violations better than trusting on improvement voluntarily initiated by prospering businesses.

    I’d be happy if you can come up with any idea of how such measures could be designed!

  • Ivo Vegter

    The distinction between coercive labour and voluntary labour is crucial, in my view. And fundamentally, all such choices are between the lesser of two evils. In some people’s cases, it may be between burger flipper, store clerk and the dole, but in poorer countries the choices are more stark. You may not like this, but it’s reality. You can’t just wish it away.

    China has a GDP per capita of below $1000. Whatever your opinion about the role of the state, there’s only so much a state can do for 1.3 billion people on that kind of GDP, even if they wished to return to communist nirvana in which the state had the use all the money the country produced. You may not like this, but it’s reality. You can’t just wish it away.

    More importantly, whether or not you approve of China’s labour policies, and whether or not you believe teenagers should be permitted to work, or people should be permitted to accept work in conditions that to you and me would be harsh, the point is that trade barriers or trade sanctions on the part of a foreign government will be counter-productive. Working conditions can only improve with prosperity. They can only improve once parents can afford to support children for longer, while they receive a formal education. This happened in the rich world, and it needs to happen in China. Advocating policies that reduce trade, reduce prosperity both at home and in China. That is a perverse form of punishment that will increase poverty. With lower profitability for Chinese firms, there will be fewer jobs, more pressure on costs, less competition among employers for employees, lower wages and longer working hours. So no matter what you believe about the responsibility or capabilities of the Chinese government, and no matter what you believe about sweat shops or child labour, trade restrictions can only exacerbate the problem.

  • dripab

    Thank you for the reply and for bringing this issue up in the first place. I strongly oppose your opinion though.
    You are putting so much emphasis on the word “voluntary” and I am confused why. If someone must choose between (A) doing something and (B) dying, the reference to the term “voluntary” is inappropriate; it doesn’t explain or justify why A is happening. That people refrain from choosing death over sufferance doesn’t make sufferance acceptable. Similarly, arguments like “we mustn’t deprive people of the right to do A” are misleading. It’s not like people are invoking their freedom of action when choosing the lesser of two evils. When talking of child labour, I get the impression that terms like “voluntary” and “right to do so” are used in order to evoke the emotion of a little girl craving a ride on a merry-go-round with lots of candy floss.
    Whether child labour should be permitted is not even the point, but whether people should have to choose between death and child labour at all. It IS a government’s purpose to protect their citizens and ensure that they are able to satisfy their very basic human needs. I am NOT talking about “luxury soup kitchens and 12 years of free education and lifelong free medical care and all those other lovely socialist things Europeans can afford.” This is not about some western nations high social standards by which I am judging a poor development country. This is about young human beings who are forced (physically or mentally) to work like machines from 0730 to 2230, partly under dangerous conditions. About just-born girls being tossed into trash cans because they won’t be helping much on the farm.
    It is as well delusive to claim that I mention specific serious child labour incidents in order to elicit an emotional reaction. Such child labour does take place in China. (The very survey you are linking to states: “The bulk of child labour is in the 10–14 years”) And neither do the children “voluntary” to work, nor do they exercise their “freedom to act”, nor do they or I intend to “elicit an emotional reaction” in Ivo’s head. Furthermore, it doesn’t make a difference whether child labour is labeled illegal or not if the respective laws are not enforced or businesses are even guaranteed that jurisdiction will not be exercised in certain zones. Also, I dare to doubt that China is unable to enforce such laws. Furthermore, it couldn’t surprise if the political leaders, i.e. for instance in China the CEOs, are *unwilling* to do so.
    If all you see worldwide is an improved quality of life, then you might be looking at surveys funded by investment banks, businesses and governments. Reports about severe violations of human and environmental interests are repeatedly leaking to the public, although the government is doing everything to avoid such reports, abolishing freedom of information and opinion, punishing citizens for giving information to journalists, imprisoning critics. Uncontrolled trade and competition is not the answer to violations of human rights and rights of the child. Free economies – under the pressure of competition – MUST exploit human and natural resources.
    Freedom of business is great. The more are humanity and sustainability. Of course, these words are meaningless, I only mention them to make you cry 😉

  • Ivo Vegter

    Thanks for your response. I’m afraid I disagree both with your characterisation of what I said, and with your points themselves, however.

    I’m not claiming that all child labour is voluntary. However, when it is, there’s a strong argument to say it should be permitted. As to it being the government’s purpose to protect citizens from death and suffering, that is not true. Every person has a primary responsibility for themselves. Everyone has the choice between producing at least enough for subsistence, and starvation. No person has the right to demand a living from someone else. Failing to work does not mean you get to escape the consequences. You may get charity, but you don’t have a right to it. If you’re lucky enough to live in a rich country, such charity might be abundant, or even institutionalised, but you can’t just conjure it into existence universally, just because you think that would be nice. It would be, but we’re dealing with reality here. Besides, working for a living, for food and betterment isn’t evil either. Even if you, as a comfortable rich person, might think it’s particularly hard work, or particularly meagre reward. How can you deny someone the right to work voluntarily, because the conditions of that work does not meet the rarified standards you would expect?

    The fact is that many governments simply cannot, by any means whatsoever, provide luxury soup kitchens and 12 years of free education and lifelong free medical care and all those other lovely socialist things Europeans can afford. When a country cannot do so, because, for example, it has a population twice that of Europe and the USA put together, and a GDP one twentieth the size, how can you justify punishing that country for its poverty by refusing to trade with it? When you whip a donkey, does it become a horse?

    You cannot simply wish these problems away. That does not mean nothing should be done. And I certainly did not say “absolutely nothing is what should be done”. I said the government should not do anything about trade policy. I said nothing about individuals and what they might do. If you want to do something about it, by all means go fund a school in China. Go hand out cash in the street. Whatever. For my part, I happen to believe that trade with China will be far more effective and sustainable as a poverty relief measure. Each to his own. I can’t (and won’t) force you to trade with China if you don’t want to, as long as you don’t force me not to trade with China. I don’t think it is right to prevent the Chinese from getting richer by banning others from trading with them. Not only are you infringing on the rights of those others, but prosperity is exactly what the Chinese need to be able to afford longer education, fewer teenagers working, and better living conditions.

    I also did not say 10-year-old boys must crawl into toxic coal mines. I did, however, say that such phrasing is inaccurate and designed to elicit an emotional response. As I tried to show, neither the age in your example nor the job is representative of what actually happens. Nor are either of them legal in China.

    Yes, it does happen. I wish I could “do something”. But firstly, I can’t force you to do something. And even that extreme case can only be remedied, sustainably, when the parents of that boy have sufficient wealth to support the child, so secondly, I certainly shouldn’t “do something” that ends up restricting the opportunity for Chinese to get wealthier.

    It rather undermines your own altruistic point to claim that you won’t do something about it because you think (wrongly, as it happens) that the economies of supposedly good-governed countries (in which I presume you live) are being threatened by poor people in poor countries trying to make a living. You’d force them, on pain of starvation, to refuse to permit starvation? Nice. That’ll work.

    As for the “race to the bottom”, I have yet to see it. It’s a cute metaphor, but it doesn’t reflect reality. All I see in the numbers, worldwide, is rising real incomes, lower numbers of people in poverty, and improved quality of life. If you care to look at the facts, that is, rather than make a sweeping and ultimately counter-productive judgement based on a single heart-rending photograph of a single working child.

  • dripab

    You are claiming that child labour and work in sweat shops are nowadays voluntary (and I guess you mean that they therefore are less or not problematic). However, if a child has the choice to save itself and its family from death by working, the word “voluntary” becomes rather schemeless. If a mother has the choice between (a) not feeding its child and (b) working 6x16h per week while being beaten when she merely speaks a word to a co-worker, the phrase “free to do so” doesn’t weigh much. How free is a man in the desert who can do nothing but obey the order of him who holds the water? How much of “freedom” and “voluntary” is left when all that remains is the alternative of death? Voluntary was the “formal, paid job” which “even” you worked “at age 12 [as a] comparatively rich Westerner”.
    Similarly, to speak of “the right of the child to work” appears pointless here. If someone must choose between two evils, you cannot say “It is ok that evil 1 happens because the person had the right to choose it over evil 2”. Bandit: “You have the right to give me your Rolex – or your cell phone!”
    You’re right: child labour should not be prohibited. Instead, it should be voluntary! It is the government’s essential purpose to protect their citizens from death and suffering and the government fails where 10-year-old boys must crawl into toxic coal mines in order to earn food for their family. It is issues *beyond* the basic physical well-being that lie within the citizen’s own responsibility and free will.
    Furthermore, it is unbearable that economies of good-governed countries in which such tasks are fulfilled are threatened by the more competitive economies of countries where human rights don’t mean shit. “Absolutely nothing” is NOT what should be done! “Competition”: it brought us out of stone-age caves, yeah, but now it tends to make us race to the bottom.

    Besides, you say: “terms like “child labour” […] are designed to evoke an emotional reaction. When phrased in such black-and-white terms, what sensible rich-world person would not instinctively oppose it?” That’s a groundless assertion. The terms “child” and “labour” are put together to describe a status, and it is this status which evokes emotion. Only the most successful politicians have the great rhetoric ability needed to invent a phrase that accurately describes child labour but does not evoke an emotional reaction. I haven’t heard such phrase yet; can you think of any?