Unintended Consequences for Children

International children’s rights advocates focus significant resources on eliminating child labor in developing countries, often advocating consumer boycotts and international regulation. Despite all these efforts, however, child labor is still prevalent throughout the developing world. Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti think all that international pressure may actually be worsening the child labor problem. The economists point out that reform in the developed world was driven by the unskilled workers who competed with children for employment. Today, external measures like boycotts eliminate that mechanism by shifting child laborers to the informal sector and reducing the incentive for unskilled workers to advocate for reform. The authors instead suggest policies which reward parents for sending their kids to school, discourage high fertility, and support families dependent on child-labor income. [%comments]

Eric M. Jones

"The economists point out that reform in the developed world was driven by the unskilled workers who competed with children for employment."

Negative. Usually these people are so down-trodden by the system that they have no energy or resources to put together any sort of movement. Instead it was the unions and pointy-headed liberals who wanted a better society.

You can also bet who was against it....


I have seen many times individuals of visible age between 14 and 16 working in fast food franchises in smaller towns in Canada. I wonder: does that count for child labor? It is labor for sure. Also what is the definition of a child? To me a 15-years-old is still a child. And how is that different from the child labor in developing world?

Megan W.

While I oppose child labor, I have long wondered if boycotts are the way to go. What happens to the child who is now eating regularly because he has a job, if he loses that job? Seems to me, he may be better off working if the local economy is grim enough to require it.


The suggested policies are pretty obvious measures, but which are often criticized, I just can´t figure out why. In Brazil, there´s a reward plan for parents who are able to keep their children at school, but it´s been deemed as a way for the government to assure such parents will vote for them the next election. That might be so, but there´s nothing illegal or immoral about it, it´s not like they´re buying people´s votes or anything. More than that, they´re not simply improving these families lives, they´re also assuring the country will have more educated people in the future. And more education generally means more development, as in South Korea´s case, for instance.


Why doesn't homework qualify as child labor?

Mojo Bone

If a fifteen year old were allowed to do today what I did for money when I was fifteen, well fourteen, actually-most folks would want to see his parents jailed for exploitation and/or endangerment. I guess I can see how today's kids, who haven't been allowed to ride a bicycle without a helmet or carry a pocket knife, might never have gotten enough sense knocked into them to be able to handle operating a meat slicer, or using knives and cash registers and whatnot, but given that my parents and grandparents grubbed for every nickel they could earn during the last depression, I've acquired the opinion that in certain circumstances, there may be a limit to how much 'morality' a given family can afford.

Karl Bielefeldt

Nothing wrong with child labor, as long as it's fair, safe, and doesn't interfere with education. Personally, I think kids don't work enough these days, with a consequent sense of entitlement that lasts too long into adulthood.


I think this “reward for school” social program is really interesting and beneficial. If it is implemented correctly, it should be able to provide a good number of children with access to relevant, (hopefully free) and good-quality education.

However, this would of course not be enough, as the government institutions need to implement laws and regulations against child labour. Parents need to be more educated and given a chance to find alternative income to order to replace their child's employment. Of course, there needs to be a combination of different programs in order to end any social problem and really make a difference in the developing world.


There was a very good article in Scientific American in October 2003. Unfortunately when I tried t tried to access it tonight it is behind a paywall.

The article recounted the history of child labor in Britain and US. It was widely promoted. From the introduction to the article "In the early days of the industrial revolution, inventors were often very forthright about the aims of their innovations. The co-inventor of the roller spinning machine, English mechanic John Wyatt, promoted it as a way for textile factories to downsize their labor forces. The contraption was so easy to run, Wyatt said, that businesses didn't need as many skilled craftspeople with spinning wheels; they could get by with children instead. "Adopting the machine, a Clothier formerly employing a hundred spinners might turn off thirty of the best of them but employ an additional ten infirm people or children," he wrote in 1741. The British attorney general was won over and, in granting a patent, noted how "even Children of five or six Years of age" could operate the machine."

From what I recall the rise of mandatory public shools was a factor in reducing the labor force and enabling older children and adults to obtain jobs. The higher literacy rate also made workers more capable. Unions and social policy played a role.



Mr. Doepke and Mr. Zilibotti are right about the potential ineffectiveness and possible damage that boycotting and international regulation can cause in the struggle to end the practice of child labor (and we're talking about illegal child labor here, as defined in ILO conventions 138, 182).

But they don't mention that there is also a growing movement that seeks to effect systemic change within industries and markets through consumers making positive purchasing decisions from companies that are trusted (as well as voluntarily and independently certified and monitored) to use ethical production practices. For an example in the carpet industry (historically a major “employer” of children worldwide) see www.GoodWeave.org.

In this case, adult workers, who lose out when children work in their places for a cheaper wage, can return to their work and support their families, even send their own children to school, as a result of a fair wage. While it's not a cure-all, this system addresses education as well as adult wages, two major factors in the continued perpetuation of poverty in the developing world.


Jason S

The fight against child labor, specifically in developing nations, is one of those "you had good intentions but really just made things worse." From the reports I have read the typical story goes like this...kid gets hired making shoes for big US company...gets paid 1 dollar...which is 20 times what he was making...people in US find out and are angry...they boycott, complain, fight against company.....company shuts down shoe factory.....kid gets fired.....kid is either sold as a slave or a sex worker because his family can't support him anymore....US feels good about their fight to stop child labor...kid is much worse off and misses the good ole days of making shoes for a buck.
Now granted this is a very simplified way of putting it but I think it is correct in what it projects. Instead of trying to fix the things we hate about child labor we insead want to end it thinking that if they aren't allowed to work they will go play in the park (there aren't any) or go to school (probably none of those either.)
We seem to have this 'in order to fix it we have to completely destroy it' way of doing things that stretches back to the Hellenization of the world all the way to today's health care debate. If it's broken then toss it out and start new.



I'm a skeptic on child labor ban. I suspect that child labor ban driven children in poor countries to sex trade.
Look at Cambodia with labor laws adhered to US standards, they have one of the most prevalent child prostitution problem. A lot of children from poor families need money no matter what, so they go underground into sex trade. There are children as young as 6 years old soliciting on the street. They look forward to working in factories when they turn 16. If only they could lower the working age to 12, their parents might be able to tough it out for a few more years.

ray bans on my face

Those boycotts that those mislead college students and self-interested union members organize result in unintended consequences that end up hurting those they are supposedly seeking to protect.

Jeffrey Sachs and others have done some work on this subject. I would suggest taking their work, roll it up in a cylindrical fashion and beam those college students and union members in the face with it.

This new proposed reform could work. Although, some countries may not have the proper infrastructure or enough resources to make it happen and may have to borrow capital from other developed countries. Hopefully that kind of investment works faster and more effectively than the progress from the status quo.


The boycott of industries emplying child labour implies that the alternative to working for low wages in sweat shops is going to school and improving the child's propects for a properous future. I believe that the alternative is more likely to be that the child and his family starve or resort to other, even less desirable strategies for survival.

Boycotting will just reduce the trade opportunities of those countries and increase their dependence on international aid which in many cases is counterproductive, offering not what the receiving country really needs but what the giving country wants to dispose of or thinks is a good idea.

I also question our ability to verify that factories are in fact compying with labour or condition restrictions. People from other places, who frequently think that our ideas are "nuts" are very good at letting us see what they think we want to see and trying to restrict us from seeing what we would find shocking.

The only example I can provide of a factory showing outsiders what they think they want to see was in a carpet factory in Tibet. We were taken to see the factory as part a tour group in an attempt to sell us carpets. On the factory floor, several women sat in silence working their looms. It was a very glum place but met our expectations of what a factory should look like. Minutes later, after the group had moved on, my husband went back by himself for some reason. The same women were still working the looms but now they were singing while they worked. Their pre-school aged children were playing beside them. Mothers were nursing their babies, smiling and laughing with their friends and co-workers. The factory owners knew that westerners did not approve of children in factories so had moved the children out when the tourists were coming through. In this particular instance, we would not have disapproved of what they were hiding but the opposite could easily have been true.