No Child Labour Policies  ‘Not  In The Name Of My Best Interest’

Consequence of the ‘No Child Labour Policies’ 

“If we were fired from the factory, I could go to school, but then who would feed my family?” – Shahadat (14), Bangladeshi garment worker, 1995 (Bachman, 1995).


Although slavery has been abolished in much of the world, the practice lives on in certain isolated pockets, and some critics argue that while the west is generally oblivious to the impact of modern slavery, many aspects of western life are in fact based on the conveniences generated by unseen slaves in distant countries. For example, many in the west are used to being able to buy extremely cheap products, yet they do not often stop to consider how these products could be manufactured profitably if those involved in their manufacture were being paid anything remotely close to a decent wage. Of particular concern to many campaigners is the issue of child labour: in 2010, the International Labour Organisation (ILO 2010) estimated that:

*Up to 246 million children in the world today are child labourers (i.e. around 18% of all the world’s children).

*More than one third of these child labourers are under the age of ten.

*Up to 25,000 child labourers die each year in work-related accidents.

*Child labour is not just a Third World problem: there are around 2.5 million child labourers in the developed world (up to 1.5 million of them in the west)

Clearly, child labour is not a phenomenon of the past, nor are its effect limited to small pockets of activity. The ILO goes on to suggest that around 70% of child labourers are directly or indirectly involved in work that benefits the west, and Cunningham (2006) speculates that if all child labourers suddenly ceased to work, the global economy would collapse. The idea that the world depends upon child labour, even as most leading politicians publicly claim that they are fundamentally opposed to this type of labour, suggests that ridding the world of child labour entirely is an almost impossible task. However, “the world cannot admit to itself that it is so dependent upon child labour, so efforts to stamp the practice out will continue”.

This raises an important point: if child labour is so central to the world’s economy (in both micro and macro terms), how can an effective campaign to end child slavery be carried out when there are other, contradictory impulses that aim to keep child labour as a hidden part of that economy? This article will examine the question of child labour and the different ways in which various groups are trying to organise a complete ban, without realising the consequences of their ‘no child labour’ policies.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

In international law, child labour is covered by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 and requires that all signatory states act in the best interests of the child. In terms of child labour, the CRC specifically states that children should be moved out of labour and into education, recognising that education is the best way to equip a child with the necessary tools to live a free and prosperous life.

However, while the CRC’s intentions are clearly good, many critics have argued that the document is watered down and fails to demand sufficiently strong actions by the governments that are seen as having the worst record in this area.

Gifford (2009), for example, suggests that “the CRC aims to encourage countries to phase out child labour but does not impose any sanctions on any that do not, nor does it offer any incentives”. It is important to recognise that for some countries, phasing out or even limiting child labour would be economically damaging and would harm their development and industrial growth. Consequently, any attempt to end child labour that does not offer benefits in return is likely to end in failure.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, to note that “there is no evidence to suggest that the CRC has made any significant impact upon child labour around the world, other than to perhaps make some in the west a little more aware of the problem” (Gifford, 2009) While this criticism is convincing, it is difficult to see how the CRC could have been more effective, since the clear need to incentivise a reduction in child labour would cost so much money that it would be almost impossible to finance.

This raises the question of whether the CRC was ever likely to have a major impact on child labour, other than as a means of encouraging those in the west to recognise the nature of the problem and to perhaps be more receptive to alternative approaches.

Causes of Child Labour

There are many causes of child labour, but most are fundamentally concerned with money, or rather the absence of money. Among poorer communities, there is often a stark financial imperative for the children to start working as soon as possible.

This is the case even in some developing economies: in India and Bangladesh for example, it is rare for girls to stay in school past the age of nine or ten, since many families require their services either in the home or earning money through some other type of employment. The situation for boys is a little better, but not much, and for these families the need to generate money from their children’s work is so great that it overrides almost all other considerations. Gifford (2009) suggests that “while the west might wring its hands and complain about the child labour situation in other parts of the world, little is being done about the economic model of production that is hegemonically imposed upon these non-western economies by western demands” (Gifford, 2009)

Again, the idea that the west contributes to a context in which child labour is necessary is a popular and commonly proposed theory. However, Cunningham (2006) argues that “it may be that south Asian countries, in particular, offered a cheaper production model that the west was only too happy to accept, in which case the blame is really to be levelled at the countries that offered their own children as labourers in the first place”. Gifford, meanwhile, claims that even if the west is not driving child labour directly, it is perfectly clear that this is at least the indirect result, in which case the west has the power to stop child labour but does not do so, primarily because of the convenience of the current arrangement.


If money is the root cause of child labour, it is reasonable to suggest that money must be at the root of any serious attempt to tackle the problem. Countries such as India and Brazil, which have high rates of child labour, have been experiencing significant rates of economic growth in recent years, and are unlikely to sacrifice this growth simply because moral pressure is exerted on them.

Even if their governments acceded to calls to end child labour, the resulting economic slowdown would almost certainly lead to political change and the swift reinstatement of child labour. Fyle (2009) suggests that “child labour is not something that can be snuffed out in an unequal world”, and goes on to claim that “the lifestyles of the richer nations are paid for, in part, by the lifestyles of the poorer nations”. It is therefore not only the poorer nations that would have to commit to great sacrifices in order to end child labour, but also countries such as the US, the UK and many parts of Europe, where citizens are used to paying low prices for products.

Fyle goes on to argue that “regardless of the legal implications, no government is going to sign up for a program that is guaranteed to cause serious damage to their economy”, in which case any attempt to resolve the child labour issue through legal means is likely to be doomed to failure since the legal framework would almost certainly be impacted by political pressure and, as a result, would be developed in such a way as to ensure that the keenest problems facing nations would not be exacerbated.

Definition of Childhood

Another key problem is the fact that definitions of childhood are different in different parts of the world. For example, Cunningham (2006) argues that although precise changes are different in different circumstances, “most societies in the west regard puberty as the moment when a child ceases to be a child and becomes an adolescent”, with adolescence representing a mid-point between childhood and adulthood.

However, Postman (1996) counters this view by suggesting that some people leave childhood around the age of five or six, while others never leave childhood at all, in which case “the term ‘childhood’ is useful for little more than an arbitrary marking of physical rather than emotional development”.

Given that there are so many arguments about the definition of childhood in western civilisation, it is natural to believe that the arguments about the definition of childhood in the world in general is likely to be even more varied. In some cultures, childhood is venerated as a state that should be encouraged to last for as long as possible, while in others childhood is a rushed affair and children are encouraged to grow up and assume adult responsibilities as soon as possible.

Complicating this is the fact that most of the international discourse concerning childhood and childhood slavery comes from a western point of view, which means that western definitions apply.

The Harkin Act

Nevertheless, despite the impediments described above, attempts continue to ban child labour. One of the most influential anti-child labour movements in recent years has been led by US senator Tom Harkin, who in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2006 attempted to force the Child Labour Deterrence Act into existence. This act was designed to make it a criminal offence to import into the US any products that had been produced using child labour.

Defining a child as anyone under the age of 15, the bill was based on the assumption that child labour around the world could be seriously reduced if one of the key markets for goods produced by child labour, the US, took a firm stand and withdrew its economic support for this type of industry.

The act has now been put into law, mainly because of recognition that the US consumer market is heavily leveraged upon the supply of products that are produced using child labour. Gifford (2009) notes that “there is a certain level of ingeniousness in the attitude of importers, since they have to act as if they are shocked and appalled whenever it emerges that their products are produced using child labour, yet child labour and slave labour represent the only ways in which these products could be produced for such low prices”.

The Harkin Act would certainly reduce child labour to an extent, but given that the international trade in products created using child labour is already to an extent an illicit, secretive industry, it is probable that loopholes would be found.

Furthermore, the Harkin Act does not go far enough in terms of establishing how the involvement of child labour might be detected. If some form of assessment procedure was introduced, for example, it is likely that ways around this would be developed.

In an assessment of the likely impact of the Harkin Act on Bangladeshi garment manufacturers, Rahman (1999) argues that: “The bill concentrates on prohibition, rather than on regulation, and fails to take into account the situation of acute poverty that forces children to enter the labour force. That is why many developing countries opposed such global prohibition of child labour. These countries consider these initiatives to be a kind of disguised protectionism and claim that their children are being used to protect jobs in the developed countries.

In other words, the Harkin Act arguably addresses the superficial manifestation of child labour – the availability of products created in this way – without addressing the broader issue of an economic system that indirectly but actively encourages the use of child labour. Gifford (2009) identifies the Harkin Act as “a prime example of why legislation designed to create legal barriers to international child labour will fundamentally never work”, and it is certainly clear that Harkin seems to be trying to stamp out child labour while simultaneously allowing the activities that support child labour (other than direct importation) to continue.

For example, if imports of products made using child labour were banned through the use of a certification method, it is not difficult to see how this could be manipulated by producers and importers, and there would appear not to be the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure that a law created under the Harkin Act could ever be properly enforced.

Cigno and Rosati (2005) argue that the only way to stamp out child labour is to invest in economic development programs that “compel governments to gradually phase out child labour because of the economic argument in favour of greater education”. However, they also acknowledge that there is a key paradox in this approach, since “any attempt by the west to encourage developing nations to ‘become more like us’ is undermined by the fact that ‘we’ live in a culture that has benefited, and continues to benefit from, child labour”.

In other words, the authors are arguing that even the aim of encouraging economic growth that makes child labour an anachronism, is impossible because the global economy requires some nations to be in lowly positions in which workers are paid poorly and there is little chance of education for children.

They add that “legislating to end child poverty on a global scale is hopeless – it might be a nice idea, but it is completely impossible because we underestimate the massive changes that we in the west would have to make to our own lives in order to facilitate such a chance” (Cigno & Rosati, 2005)

Furthermore, there are significant social problems in many developing countries concerning factors such as mortality and family cohesion, which mean that where the father, for example, has died, it is often up to the children to support the family. No amount of legislation can alter these social circumstances or persuade families that they should starve in order to support a ban on child labour. 

No Child Labour Polices, Not in the name of ‘My Best Interest’:

Harkin’s Bill – Thank you, Mr Harkin, Sir!

According to a press release in October 1994, 50,000 children in Bangladesh lost their jobs because of the Harkin Bill. A UNICEF worker confirms ‘ the jobs went overnight’.

This controversial bill, the ‘ Child Labour Deterrence Act’ had first been introduced in Bangladesh in July 1992 but after objections the ‘trading’ aspect was toned down and reintroduced with the ‘ Humanitarian’ aspect. 

Moyna a ten year old orphan who had lost her job, was asked why buyers have been exerting such pressure against child labour, she replied ‘ they loathe us, don’t they? We are poor  and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down. Moyna’s job like many others supported her and her grandmother.

Did they like working in garment factories? The children who worked find this a strange question.  They earned money because of it, bonuses and holidays and it gave them a certain status that non –working children did not have, even though they are paid less than adult workers.

When UNICEF and ILO made series of follow up visits they found that children who had lost jobs at garments industries were working at stone crushing and street hustling, which is of course more dangerous.

Girls have more difficulties in getting jobs and many ending up getting married simply to ease money problems. No child workers have ever heard of Senator Harkin, but they know that pressures from the US and other western nations which buy most of Bangladesh’s garments has resulted in thousands of them losing their jobs.  They find it difficult to understand how US and western approach of ‘no child labour’ in their region can be as one of  humanitarian concern.

Children of Poverty:

The recent (March 2010) Channel 4’s ‘Indian Winters’ reflects examples of the reality of children’s lives in poor countries, such as India and Bangladesh. Children’s lives which the International Child Labour Legislations fails to tackle.

Street children such as Hassan in Kevin McCloud’s Slumdog Children of Mumbai, have birthdays which come and go, without celebration. He does not know his age, resorts to drugs in order so that he does not feel hungry.

Six year old Deepa whose toe was eaten away by the rats when she was a baby, works all hours of the day and night to make ends meet to feed her other younger siblings when her mother left them to fend for themselves. They are at risk of abuse such as police harassment, to gang violence,  sexual, physical, and mental abuse, where the streets are overcrowded with street gangs and drug dealers. As a result of this poverty children have no option but to work.

Many poor parents want their children to go to school, but school facilities are very limited with little or no help from government funding.  Therefore school to a poor family is a luxury that they cannot afford. 

Romantic western notion of childhood and play times does not exist amongst the children of poverty but

the notion of survival is called for, ‘the right to live’.

According to Professor Kristoffel Lieten of  IREWOC 2005 (article -Working Children’s Organisation), Under the UNCRC all children’s views have to be taken into account and that these rights are universal. By applying these legislative ban on child labour it can be argued that these children’s rights are being violated under the UNCRC.

‘U.S. allows child labour by law but chastises other nations for Human Rights abuses’                      

The west, especially the US, is clearly seen as wielding power without responsibility.  A nation with a reputation of being a bully in international politics suddenly proclaims itself to be the champion of children’s rights but refuses to make concessions over the rates it will pay for production in poor countries.

Nevertheless while the US is proclaiming to be the champion of children rights elsewhere it is failing to protect children in its own soil, the US.

A report dated   2010-08-7 by Daya Gamage of  US National Correspondent Asian Tribune wrote ‘ We Americans proudly spend a lot of time chastising other parts of the world for what we see as human rights abuses and crimes. But given our abuse of farm worker children, especially migrant children, we are hypocrites when we chastise others.’ In fact the US failed to meet its obligation to implementInternational Labour Organisation Convention  (ILO) 182 related to Worst Forms of Child Labor.

A Human Rights Watch report (2000)  “Fingers to the bone:  United States Failure to Protect Child Farm Workers” documented the exploitative, dangerous conditions under which children worked in agriculture in the US and the damage inflicted upon their health and education.  Highlighting weak protection in US law,  even those provisions were rarely enforced.

Human Rights Watch reports states that hundreds of thousands of children as young as six or seven are working in the US agriculture sector. The report further details the conditions and the failure of the US government to take effective steps needed to address the unequal treatment of working children in the Fair Labor  Standards Act.

Nearly 10 years  later (May 2010) Human Rights Watch  returned to the fields to assess conditions for working children again. Human Rights Watch ‘Shockingly found that conditions for child farm workers in the United States remain virtually as they were a decade ago.’This report details US government’s failure to take effective steps needed to remedy failures reported in 2000, most notably the US government’s failure to address the unequal treatment of working children in the Fair Labour Standards ( FLSA).

Furthermore, while rest of the world is being pressured into implementing minimum age of working children, the current US law provides no minimum age nor limits on the hours of work, for children working this sector,  so long as they have their parent’s permission. The report includes interviews with children and highlighted the poor conditions of children where employers do not even provide drinking water, sanitation or medical help.  It further highlighted children especially girls being abused, verbally, physically, including rape. Many children have died as a result of working conditions in the US agriculture.

When assessing why parents allowed their children to work, Human Rights Watch found that it as a result of poverty. As many of these workers are migrant workers, therefore  desperate need for work, geographic isolations, language barriers, fear of deportation makes it difficult to report abuse.

The US is spending millions every year, i.e. in 2009, US spent over $26 million USD dollars tackling child labour in other countries.

However, despite the alarming concerns of the Human Rights Watch, the US is still failing to deal with child labour issues, even legally allowing it, in its own soil. 

Humanitarian Concerns ‘Killing them Softly: Starvation and Dollar Bills For Afghan Kids’

The US, the world’s ‘Super Power’ the champion of children’s rights has yet again earned the reputation of  being the saviour of the hungry and destitute children. The children of Afghanistan. The very children who are being bombed by the US yet claimed to be saved from starvation. 

As reported by Norman Solomon in the Global Issues (Oct. 12, 2001) in which he states, “ The Pentagon’s air drops of food parcels and President Bush’s plea for American children to aid Afghan kids with dollar bills will go down in history as two of the most cynical maneuvers of media manipulation in the early 21st century”

A New York Times editorial proclaimed that ‘ Mr. Bush has wisely made providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people including afghan kids an integral part of American strategy.” (Global Issues 2001) The same newspaper continued to praise the President for further four days after its first report, for the government’s food aid charades: “His reaffirmation of the need for humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan—including donations from the American children—seemed heartfelt”.

  However, while the charade of food aid which includes thousands of children across the US sending in a dollar bills to the Pentagon for the President’s humanitarian effort for the Afghan kids, the US government continued their bombing campaign which created the ‘momentum’ of mass starvation in Afghanistan. ( Solomon, Global Issues Oct 2001).

Jonathan Patrick, official with aid group Concern called the US government’s food drop from the air as ‘Absolute Nonsense.’ Aid groups, one after the other criticized the US government’s campaign of food drops which they states as ‘ virtually useless and even dangerous.’

The US has been dropping 37,000 meals a day where several million people faced imminent starvation but the meals were diminishing by the day according to International aid organisation officials, meaning only a tiny percentage of hungry were receiving the US food, with some landing on minefields and food not getting to the people including children as claimed, as the result of the US bombings and borders which were sealed off.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was not worried and stated that ‘ It is quite true 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings. On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you’d be appreciative’. 

As Normon Solomon reported – Among the leadership qualities most appreciated by editorial writers was the Bush administration’s aptitude for shameless propaganda. While the Pentagon keeps dropping tons of bombs, it scatters some meals to the winds. While the U.S. government persisted with a bombing campaign that showed every sign of resulting in mass starvation, the president urged the children of the United States to send in dollar bills — “to join in a special effort to help the children of Afghanistan.”

Even, when the children of Afghanistan were suffering the consequences of the US bombardment,

Even when the US were killing millions of these Afghan children, violating their human rights, they should still thank the US and appreciate them. As the Pentagon chief Rumsfeld stated above ‘ if you were one of those starving people and received one of our rations, you’d appreciate it’. 

As already stated it is no doubt very confusing for these Afghan children and other children of poverty, the children of ‘no child labour’ policies to understand the US and other western aspects of ‘HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS’ in their part of the world i.e:

The US government obtaining millions of dollars from its citizens in order to help the Afghan children from starvation, yet they are not concerned about whether it reaches the very same people that they are starving as a result of their bombing campaign in order to fight their own campaign of unjustified ‘war on terror’, regardless of  if innocent children being killed, same as the;   

The children of ‘no child labour’ being driven away because of the western polices of ‘humanitarian’ concerns, the so called the ‘ CRC’ yet,  there does not seem to be  much effort to create other provisions to help these children, so that they are not forced to pursue other dangerous jobs  i.e kidney selling, prostitution and other dangerous jobs which they work all hours of the day and night.

For these children and many others, poor and destitute the CRC (UN Convention on the Rights of a Child) is only the text of aspiration which may never be understood by many of these children and will be far from being utilized unless the western world gives more thoughts to the consequences of their own policies of Children’s Rights and Issues of Child Labour.


Ultimately, it is clear that banning child labour is a huge challenge, and extends far beyond simply persuading countries around the world to agree that child labour should no longer be supported by the global economy. For developing nations, children are a vital source of labour and often support their families, making it inconceivable that they could be taken out of work and returned to school.

Furthermore, these nations rely on the work they receive from developed nations and on the income for exporting to the US, the UK and others, and a ban on child labour would represent a simultaneous ban on their most profitable industries – as Postman (1996) notes, “banning child labour in a country like Bangladesh would be like banning anyone over the age of thirty from working in the UK… in terms of its economic impact”.

Meanwhile, child labour is also, unfortunately, vital for many western economies, which rely upon the

extremely cheap goods that they import from developing nations. As Cunningham (2006) notes, “developed nations rely on the fact that workers in other parts of the world will work for, in some cases,

less than 1% of the wage that an American or a European would expect”, and it is simply impossible for

the west to suddenly abandon all parts of its economy that rely upon this large source of cheap labour.

This might seem to suggest that child labour is impossible to ban and that the suffering of child workers around the world will continue indefinitely, but there remain ways that child labour can be minimised and perhaps even ended:

governments could work together to create funding for education and healthcare programs that could reduce the need for children to work; and research into new technologies could allow developing nations to come up with other ways of enticing international trade.

However, for now, it remains the case that child labourers and other very low-paid workers are the only commodity that many developing nations are able to exploit.



Cigno, A. & F.C. Rosati (2005). The Economics of Child Labour. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cunningham, H. (2006). The Invention of Childhood. London: BBC Books

Fassa, A.G. & D.L. Parker & T.J. Scanlon (2010). Child Labour: A Public Health Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fyfe, A. (2009). The Worldwide Movement Against Child Labour: Progress and Future Directions. Geneva: ILO Publishing

Gifford, C. (2009). Child Labour. London: Evans Brothers

Herath, G. & K. Sharma (2007). Child Labour in South Asia. London: Ashgate Publishing

ILO (2010). Facts on Child Labour. Geneva: ILO Publishing

Mustafa, M. (1997). Child Labour in India: A Bitter Truth. London: Deep & Deep Publications

Nesi, G. & L. Nogler & M. Pertile (2008). Child Labour in a Globalised World: A Legal Analysis of ILO Action. London: Ashgate Publishing

Postman, N. (1996). The Disappearance of Childhood. London: Vintage

Rahman, M.M. (1999).  Child Labour in Bangladesh: A Critical Appraisal of Harkin’s Bill and the MOU Type Schooling Program, in ‘The Journal of Economic Issues’, no. 33, p. 10-18

New Internationalist – Shohidul Alam,, cited 6/2010

Professor Kristoffel Lieten, IREWOC 2005 (article -Working Children’s Organisation) page 5, para 2) cited January 10.

Human Rights Watch reports on US child labour: US- End Child Labour in the Fields – labour-


Daya Gamage – Asian Tribune (July 2008),  (Global Issues posted  (12 /10/ 2001)