Recently, I’ve been bombarded with endless arguments against free trade, and one popular argument is that it leads to lower labor standards. In most parts of the world where the manufacturing sector has increased in size, child labor is employed to do much of the work in factories.  More often than not, “child labor” brings to mind horrific images of exploited children and abusive working conditions.
After all, how could you take a child away  from getting a good education or just being a child  and make them spend time working?  I’m certainly not in favor of child labor, but in many cases, it’s necessary for the economic progress of a nation. What I am against, though, are the many ways anti-free trade campaigners push government to stop child labor.
Look at some anti-child labor legislation in the past — there are many unintended consequences that have resulted from it.  Many times they hurt children more than they help them, by taking away their options. In countries like Bangladesh, employment of children in sweatshops provide a much better opportunity than the alternatives they have.
Sure, they have a choice of getting an education and going to school, but for many of them, that’s just not financially feasible (keeping in mind that many children work on farms to help put food on the table for their families).
In 1993, Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa) proposed a legislative bill to ban the importation of all products produced through child labor. Sure, that had great intentions, but as economist Benjamin Powell has noted, factories in Bangladesh responded by laying off 50,000 children, and many of them turned to their next best choice: prostitution.
In many developing countries, working in a factory setting is a much safer option when compared to their other choices, such as backbreaking subsistence farming which often involves much riskier or dangerous behaviors and pays far less.
So why are anti-globalization and anti-free trade advocates pushing for more child labor protection laws?  They certainly have the best  intentions, but reality shows that they are a hinderance and burden to the poor. Promoting and expanding free trade allows incomes to rise and what follows are higher social norms and standards. As developing nations get wealthier, they’ll demand better conditions and higher standards, and what eventually follows is a lower rate of child labor. “Fair trade” isn’t the solution — it’s just a euphemism for encouraging protectionist policies. If we want better standards in developing countries, governments ought to encourage free trade and investment.
Child labor is not going to magically disappear any time soon, and keeping children away from work won’t fix the problem. What will certainly help though, is the free market and its ability to make an economy capital-intensive enough to produce wealth that would then allow children to go to school.  If we want to be socially responsible consumers, we should be promoting free trade, not restrict it.

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