Child Labor Remains a Persistent Problem

Child labor remains one of the world’s most persistent human rights problems, pitting rights advocates, governments and companies against tradition, the needs of impoverished families and criminal groups. Over the last few decades, rights advocates have pressured governments and private-sector actors to crack down on child labor. Individual companies and industries have responded to the calls with various measures, including enacting codes of conduct and severing ties with suppliers.

Two recent stories demonstrate the strength and weaknesses of the existing strategies.

Apple recently reported that audits of its supplier factories turned up violations of labor laws and the company’s internal codes, including the hiring of some workers under the age of 16. Apple’s findings reportedly showed that the underage workers were no longer employed by suppliers, or else were still employed but now above the legal working age, according to the Associated Press.

Apple’s discoveries made a few international headlines, but there was little outcry from rights advocates because the company has an established code and is actively engaged in tracking supplier compliance.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel ran an investigative piece this week on soccer-ball manufacturing in Pakistan and the effect that international scrutiny has had on child labor in that industry. Pakistan produces over 60 million hand-stitched footballs in a World Cup year, in a production process that has traditionally employed children. Pressure from rights advocates on international buyers has led manufacturers to prohibit child labor in recent years. But as Der Spiegel points out, this has not addressed the problem, as the children have simply moved on to other employers, predominantly in the area’s brick kilns.

As the Pakistan case illustrates, when poverty is the primary driver for putting children to work, families will simply find alternative employers. Unfortunately, these are likely to be even less responsive to outside pressure, and may involve harsher working conditions.

In cases where tradition calls for involving every member of a family in an enterprise — such as farming and small, family-run businesses — children have been part of the workforce for centuries. The loss of children as a participant may result in a decreased standard of living and profound hardship for the entire family unit.

At the same time, tens of thousands of children each year are forced to work, often victims of human-trafficking rings. These rings may convince impoverished parents to cede control of their children in exchange for promises of work and money, but often resort to kidnapping as well. Others operate as debt-bonders, entrapping entire families into lifetimes of servitude.

Some rights advocates have questioned the overall efficacy of forcing children out of traditional or mainstream workplaces until the risks of poverty and the threats posed by criminal gangs can be addressed. Providing families with replacement funding to send their children to school — or for training in the trades for older children — are examples of strategies that have been tried in a few locales to minimize the risks.