Labor has always been an issue. We originally only needed to find food or build a home, just like any other animals. But when we ‘civilized’ ourselves and started to cultivate our own food, fewer people were needed for the basic needs of survival. What to do then? As much as our knowledge expanded, our need for all kinds of new “work” came in place. Producing something became the new survival need for everybody, from children to women to men. With the evolution of societies, we started deciding for whatever reason that women couldn’t work (Check that Just FYI), then that children couldn’t either. Fast forward to today, the West is giving lessons to other nations because it thinks it has the monopoly on moral. We assume that child labor is an atrocity, that people who work in developing countries are treated in a bad way. Which is certainly true for the most part, but like the Bible says “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”
Many people I know talk about China as a country where they exploit children to work in factories under harsh conditions. My goal here is not to deny that it certainly happens there. I just want to remind everybody that this exact same situation existed less than 100 years ago in the US. Our grand parents were alive during that time. Americans are so proud of their Constitution which is 230 years old but they easily dismiss their actions of less than a century ago. While slavery was forbidden in the New England States, children were a huge part of the labor force in different industries there. In the first half of the 20th century, orphans were shipped to cities that lacked this cheap labor. Without child labor, developed countries would not have had such a fast development because many of the jobs that children were needed for did not require any particular skills. The new ethics in the developed world came in handy when it appeared that more and more jobs required employees to have an education. It was then decided that children had to go to school. Children under 10 years old were common on fruit picking farms in 1910. And children are still common on the farms of America. Today, it is legal for a 12 year old child to work on a farm as much as he “wants” outside of school hours. And we’re not talking about the family farm here. Which means that American farmed fruits and vegetables can be picked up by children (along side illegal immigrants). What disgusts us abroad is happening right here. And the reason for this child to work is the same as the one in Africa; his household needs more money.
It’s easy to say that “every child” should go to school or that children should not work when you have never experienced life or death poverty. But put yourself in the shoes of a family in Indonesia who could not survive without the added revenue of their child’s labor. Should this family starve to death just because of your strong ideals? Moreover, it’s quite odd to me that a child selling lemonade on the streets of American suburbs is praised as an “entrepreneur”. The same is thought of a child mowing his neighbor’s grass or distributing the newspaper in his neighborhood. Child labor is child labor. Factual situations are harder to face than Ethical illusions.
Upper middle class consumers only care about the “Organic” and “Gluten Free” labels while the ones below the poverty lane do not have enough time or money to care about where their food comes from. We know – or easily forget – that our bananas from Mexico, our chocolate from the Ivory Coast or even our melons from California are part of a system that is benefiting from child labor, modern slavery or cheap labor. Most of the labor issues are linked with agriculture, but for some reason the focus of Westerners is always on the industrial labor. We always want to focus on the problems abroad when it comes to poverty and wrongdoings in the work place. But too many people in the United States work multiple jobs. And they do not do that for their own pleasure. These people went to school. But what is the point of going to school as a child if in the end you are going to earn a non livable wage in your adulthood? The US minimum wage of $7.25/hour is not enough. Poor adults in America have to put up with the charge of unbelievable hours to support a system which under pays them but forces their children to go to (under founded) school. Their job as parents raising the future generations is in jeopardy because of a broken system. The country that loves reminding everybody that it is the greatest in the world forgets to mention that too many people are suffering more than they should to have a chance at the American Dream. When it’s not children, it is illegal immigrants. When it’s not immigrants, it is under paid labor. It is time to accept that even though the grass should be greener in the US, it is still brownish and climate change (or the Climatextinction) has nothing to do with it.
In the end, school is better for children than work but schooling needs to bring to a better situation than working. The problem is in the system and the difference in development in all the different countries in the world. And the system can be improved. But for this to happen, international companies and the local governments need to do a better job at giving enough incentives to the families for them not to send their children to work. This is not an easy thing to do nor an instantaneous thing to happen. But the fundamental problem is not child labor or illegal labor. It is a mix between poverty and the need of cheap food and products. Instead of asking companies not to employ children, we should ask them to increase the salaries of the adults and we have to accept the rise in the price that will come along. Closer to home, we should fight for a higher minimum wage and remember that even in the US, children are working under harsh conditions. Also, remember that our fruits are picked up by poorly treated illegal immigrants. And that extreme poverty exists in the US. As long as we will want to buy cheap products (and until robots are enslaved), we will need cheap labor whether it is a child, an immigrant, or an underpaid citizen.