An Anthropological Defense of Child Labor


Most people would agree that enslaving children or forcing them to work in sweatshops or brothels are morally reprehensible practices. Yet the number of children laboring in hazardous and exploitative conditions around the world continues to grow. Last June, the International Labour Organization reported that, in the developing countries, some 250 million children aged 5 to 14 are working -- 120 million of them full time. Outlawing child labor may seem to be the obvious solution, but it is not the best way to protect children.

In 1989, the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention is the first human-rights treaty in history to be almost universally ratified -- of all the countries belonging to the United Nations, only Somalia and the United States have not yet ratified it.

On the surface, the convention looks good. It asserts that every child has a legal right to a name, a family, health, and education, and it aims to limit and regulate child labor. However, the document is based on a set of assumptions derived from contemporary Western values, and it dismisses the differing values of other cultures. Surely, we have learned that such an approach silences and negates the voices and experiences of millions of the world's people. By assuming that the Western way is the only right way, we promote totalitarianism, not justice.

In thinking about children and work, we need to set aside our cultural assumptions and ask: What underlying causes produce hazardous and exploitative practices? What policies could effectively eliminate those practices? And just who is the laboring child?

Children have been directly involved in the economies of their households and communities for at least 10,000 years. Pastoral and agricultural societies traditionally depended on the labor of all able-bodied members, including children. While working in the fields or with herds of animals, boys and girls acquired critical environmental knowledge and social skills. Far from being exploitative, that work integrated children into their societies and prepared them to assume even greater responsibility as adults.

In such cultures, children were seen as assets, not liabilities or dependents. People took responsibility for their fellows' material and social well-being, valuing the welfare of the group over private accumulation of wealth. The same views are common in many developing countries today.

In contrast, children in industrialized nations are dissociated from productive work. As the French historian Philippe Aries argued in Centuries of Childhood, specific historical and social developments created the modern notion of childhood as a discrete phase of life in Western cultures. As middle-class notions of individuality, privacy, family, and home emerged in the 15th through 19th centuries, children were set apart from the everyday life of adults. Later, the rise of mechanized production drastically curtailed children's economic role, and the state channeled children into compulsory education. Legislation restricted their working hours and eventually banned their paid labor altogether.

Comparative, cross-cultural research from every corner of the globe shows that the concept of "the child" is dependent on local practices, meanings, and ideas of human capability, all of which vary widely.

For example, in my field research among the Pare, in Tanzania, I found boys and girls as young as 6 working in the fields with their relatives and other members of their community. They learned how to sow, weed, and harvest crops, and how to select seeds for the next planting season. By the time a child was ready to become an adult -- by undergoing a rite of passage called ngasu, which takes place around puberty and involves instruction about behavior appropriate to each gender -- she or he was already a farmer. The Pare do not view work purely as an economic category, but as a process through which an individual becomes a full member of society, entitled to marry, participate in rituals, hold political office, and so on.

Obviously, we must be careful not to romanticize life in non-Western societies. Ample evidence shows how hierarchies of value, gender, age, and kinship in various societies typically combine to define the work of children as less important than that of adults. However, we must also be careful to recognize that collectivist societies -- such as that of the Pare -- define the person, work, an individual's rights, and the good life very differently than we do.

For example, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child violates the cultural premises of many societies when it asserts that "the child ... shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name." As Pamela Reynolds has noted in Dance, Civet Cat: Child Labour in the Zambezi Valley, the Tongans, of southern Africa, have not one but many names, which they acquire during the course of their lives. Each name denotes a change in social status, and people address an individual by different names in different contexts. Following the convention's good intentions and insisting on one legally recognized name would disturb traditional relations within Tongan families and communities.

Even more important, requiring that children attend formal schools for years devalues indigenous knowledge based on oral traditions. Children taught in school to value formal education may have neither the time nor the willingness to learn skills that will help them support themselves within their culture when they grow up.

Our assumptions color the way we see children's work: always bad, inherently exploitative. But children in traditional societies who work for their families or communities are not performing the same activity as children who labor in the context of industrial and global capitalism. Most of the positive aspects of work are lost when work becomes paid labor, and we certainly need aggressive laws to protect children who are forced to work for capitalist employers.

Even in those cases, however, we must be careful not to make matters worse instead of better for the children and their families. Many children around the world need to work for pay to support themselves and their relatives. If we enact laws that keep children out of the workplace, they may not be able to survive. The economic policies perpetrated by the industrialized countries and transnational corporations have left many poor countries in debt and have devastated many subsistence economies. We cannot simply condemn the survival strategies of the poor without offering them alternative sources of income and welfare.

We need to take both short- and long-term actions. First, we should cancel the debts that third-world countries owe to other nations and to international organizations, such as the World Bank. Those debts were created by colonialism and capitalism, and impose enormous burdens on the poor. The United Nations should work with indigenous peoples to develop strategies -- perhaps through cooperatives at the community level -- to sell locally produced goods, such as food and artworks, in ways that protect the peoples' self-sufficiency and control over local resources and land. Small businesses should be supported, and credit made available to strengthen communities' economic power. Governments and international agencies such as UNICEF should pay subsidies to parents who keep their children out of the paid workforce and who teach them the skills they need for the future -- just as the governments of some developed countries pay mothers to stay home and bear children.

That is not to say that we should abandon efforts to protect children. But we must consider the broader framework within which children labor -- the global forces that shape production, distribution, and consumption. We must take a long, hard look at how our own consumption feeds the capitalist machine. Solutions will not come from merely regulating children's labor in other countries. We must change our own economic behavior.

We can begin by boycotting goods without labels indicating that children didn't make them -- but we need to go much farther than that. We must reduce the amount of non-renewable resources that we consume. We need to work toward a global minimum wage that allows workers to support their families. We should endorse indigenous peoples' own policies to protect their children, rather than imposing on them our views of what is right.

If we assume that global capitalism is the only context for children's work, we lose sight of the socially valuable role that such work has played over the centuries in many societies, and we ignore the cultural diversity that those societies offer our world. Such cultures provide models that we might usefully adapt. For example, the people in most of those cultures think of themselves as stewards, rather than owners, of natural resources. Their economies attempt to satisfy the basic needs of all of their citizens, rather than to promote individual acquisition of wealth.

Anthropologists have a unique responsibility to help broaden the discussion of children's rights. They can provide valuable perspectives on the human experience through their cross-cultural, cross-temporal, holistic discipline. They should insist that more people from varying cultural traditions be involved in discussing how to protect children's rights. And they should educate Americans about the problems that many children face in the United States and other countries, and how Americans can help find solutions.

Anthropologists should use their expertise to help convince policy makers that diversity -- cultural and ideological, as well as biological -- is an important part of our heritage. It is our collective responsibility to protect it, especially when we are acting on behalf of our children.

Karen A. Porter is an assistant professor of comparative sociology at the University of Puget Sound and general editor of Anthropology of Work Review.