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Why do employers outside the family hire children?

The most common explanations are the lower cost and alleged irreplaceable skills ("nimble fingers") of child workers compared with adults. The viability of entire industries depends, so it is claimed, on child labour. This line of argument has, in turn, given rise to fears that the process of globalization, and of increased com-petition in world markets for certain goods will only increase and worsen the phenomenon of child labour. At the same time, according to this argument, globalization will expose child workers to still greater risks of exploitation, as their employers strive to gain a competitive edge in world markets. How valid are these arguments?

Serious research and data prove that child labour is not indispensable for the growth and survival of any industry.

How irreplaceable is child labour?

Research in some industries employing large numbers of children has cast considerable doubt on the "nimble fingers" argument. Nearly all the activities performed by children in these industries were also performed by adults. Even in the hand-knotting of carpets - alleged to be an activity where child labour is indispensable - children were found to be no more skilled than adults, and some of the finest carpets are in fact woven by adults. It has also been demonstrated in a study on the carpets and bangles industries in India that, as a portion of the final price of exported carpets or bangles to the customer, any labour-cost savings resulting from the employment of children are very small. Producers could either absorb the additional cost of hiring only adults, or pass them on to the consumer, without the viability of their enterprises being threatened.

If the "nimble fingers" argument is not true of industries that are traditionally heavily dependent on child labour, such as the carpet-making industry, what economic justification can there be for child labour in any industry?

The major reason for hiring children therefore appears to have nothing to do with economic efficiency. Children are easier to manage than adults - although less skilled, they are less aware of their rights, less troublesome, less complaining and more flexible - and ultimately expendable.

For some employers they constitute a reserve of casual labour to be hired and fired at will. When their labour is illegal, they and their parents are less likely to complain to the authorities for fear of losing whatever meagre income they bring to their families.

Moreover, some employers genuinely consider that they are doing a favour to the children whom they employ by offering them work and income. Thus, declaring child labour to be illegal may in some cases have the perverse effect of depriving child workers of much of the protection provided by labour legislation to adults. This only serves to highlight the point that prohibition alone will not suffice. Simple bans on child labour are not successful if they are not supplemented by a range of other measures.

Moscow city research

The most frequent argument provided by the employers in favour of street child labour was that through work, children recognise the value of money. Most importantly, employers said, the children build up their own honest income and do not beg or steal. 68.1% of the employers surveyed shared this opinion. 45.7% also emphasised that work helps children embrace the value of industry as opposed to idleness. Nearly one third (34.6%) favoured work as it keeps children under the constant supervision of adults.

In view of this, one of the root causes of child labour can be described as the concurrence of interests between employers and children. Children get the means to support themselves and the employers get a cheap workforce and moral satisfaction from the belief they are putting needy children on the right track.

Source: In-depth analysis of the situation of working street children in Moscow 2001. Moscow 2002

In Child Labour section

12 June - World Day Against Child Labour

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Last update:13.07.2011 ^ top