When Child Labor Is Ethical

Multinational corporations have experienced withering criticism for employing children in Asian factories. On the surface, this practice appears to be unethical. But is it?

When we study supply chain management, I engage my students in a discussion of this topic. Here is the scenario:

Industrial textile factory
Industrial size textile factory in developing country, workers on lunch break

“Major corporations with overseas subcontractors (such as Ikea in Bangladesh, Unilever in India, and Nike in China) have been criticized often with substantial negative publicity, when children as young as 10 have been found working in the subcontractor’s facilities. The standard response is to perform an audit and then enhance controls so it does not happen again. In one such case, a 10-year-old was fired. Shortly thereafter, the family, without the 10-year-old’s contribution to the family income, lost its modest home, and the 10-year-old was left to scrounge in the local dump for scraps of metal.” —adapted from  Principles of Operations Management

A student of mine from India said that the decision to hire the child was ethical; and the judgment to fire him was unethical. My student defended his position by stating that Americans do not understand the depth of poverty in India. In many circumstances, families rely on child labor, so that the family can survive. When he grew up, there was no compulsory education, so working did not deprive Indian school-age children from going to school. [In 2009, the Indian parliament legislated a compulsory education law for elementary school children.] Other students of mine who have grown up in developing countries—such as China and Bangladesh—have agreed with this line of reasoning.

After all, during the 19th century, the U.S. was once a developing country. For many years, we condoned the practice of employing children in the workplace. Once our standard of living improved—and universal, public education became a realistic objective—we passed child labor laws that prohibited this practice. So, in the present, does showing outrage at Ikea, Unilever and Nike amount to hypocrisy?

It is useful to examine public policy decisions through the lenses of utilitarianism. This philosophy states that, in all situations, you should act in a way that generates the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. Everyone’s interests are considered equal. Thus, if utterly poor families are only able to survive when the children can work, it is unethical to prevent them from doing so. By permitting child labor, we are promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The family remains intact as a result of the income received, while U.S. and European consumers obtain inexpensive goods from their retailers.

Although the philosophical justification for child labor is convincing, major corporations cannot withstand the negative publicity associated with these practices. Just this week, Apple indicated that they are going to have an independent firm audit its suppliers, because of criticisms over conditions at its overseas factories. So, from a public relations perspective, not a moral perspective, we cannot condone this practice.

Several years ago, Nike initiated a compromise solution. Children worked in their Vietnamese factories, but the company also provided them with food and a free education.

Do you think that it is ethical to employ underage children in factories located in developing countries? If a multinational corporation also provided educational opportunities, would that be acceptable?

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