When is child labour acceptable? When you take option C

The answer, according to almost all company statements on the topic, is never.

But I’m suggesting that it is acceptable, sometimes.

Why do I suggest this?

Because of the reality of the poor in developing countries.

Look at a real life scenario that one of our readers put to me as a dilemma they faced, then decide, and post your comment. (I don’t moderate them now)

Scenario: You find child labour in a supplier factory in Latin America

Do you:

A) Pull production

B) Engage the supplier to take the kids out of the workforce and audit them to check

or C) Understand that making the supplier sack the under-age workers does not solve the local systemic poverty issues, will likely worsen circumstances, so set up a programme that means the kids can both work safely, and attend school.

Most brands would choose A or B, from what I know.

Brave companies sometimes choose C, but cannot talk about it in public, lest the voracious modern media/campaigner machine gets hold of it and causes the CEO embarrassment.

It would be a brave brand that went public on option C.

But that day is surely coming. We need a more mature debate about this most difficult of topics considering how many more children will be on the planet in the coming decades.

Option C is when child labour is acceptable. When it is by far the best of three bad options.

Tell me I’m wrong…But when doing so remember that there are specific examples of child labour eradication in places such as Pakistan (Sialkot, footballs) and Bangladesh (garment factories) that have resulted in thousands of women and children being put out of work, to a worse fate than working in a factory or at home, as a result.

(FYI, a recent EC feature on living wages is here)


  1. I agree. Whilst working on a report for the Thailand government and European Commission last year about CSR in the supply chain and its impact on Thai SMEs the very same question arose. During a conference on our paper, many employers raised the fact that it is still quite the norm in developing countries for children to come home from school and go to work in the factory for a few hours, either to earn money to support their families or to support the family business. To be able to comply with the increasing CSR standard to rule out child labour in the supply chain presented a sincere concern amongst many SMEs in Thailand as they were unsure how they would be able to continue operations if this was enforced and that the economic impact on the community through loss of jobs and income would be more devestating – is it good CSR to damage a whole community? This is where it becomes an ethical vs economic issue!
    The debate in the conference in Bangkok did not reach a conclusion. We have to remember it was not that long ago that our country used child labour – our developing countries still are catching up. In countries that do not have benefit systems, income or child support for example or some of the technology or infrastructure advances we have in the western world – how can we have a universal approach to such a sensitive and difficuly issue?



  2. Terre des Hommes has very differentiated down to earth positions to it. Have a look e.g. at http://www.terredeshommes.org/index.php?lang=en&page=act.lab


  3. You make a very good point and while option C remains unacceptable by the standards of many it is still the preferred option in some circumstances.

    I worry about how we set labor and governance standards based on our values and norms as a requirement for support…the Fairtrade certification scheme certainly has these issues.

    Thanks for sharing an important 'producer' reality.

  4. Smitha

    That is a very good point. I think the Option C gives a new twist in that it focuses on "what is" . Instead of blind policing with the code of conducts this option gives a chance to debate on the issue with a more open mind. The acceptance and acknowledgment of the fact that child labor exists and has to be dealt with in a more mature way would be a big step, also a strategic one towards rethinking our labor laws and codes of conduct.

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