The International Labour Organisation''s efforts to fight the worst forms of child labour with an international ban would do more harm than good to poor countries. That is the conclusion of new research by Professors Sylvain Dessy and Stéphane Pallage, published in the Economic Journal. They argue that poverty alleviation is a much better way to target a reduction in the worst forms of child labour.
After decades of vain fights against child labour, the ILO has now decided to limit the crusade to the worst forms of child labour – drug-trafficking, underground mining, deep-sea fishing, bondage, prostitution, etc. On the face of it, this crusade seems easier to win: no one really questions the goal. But the ILO intends doing the job with its most precious weapon: legislation through an international convention banning the practice.
But the worst forms of child labour are all intrinsically linked to poverty. Either poverty makes parents choose to submit their children to these kinds of activities (in which case the ban will constrain them further) or poverty acts as a catalyst to child trafficking by making it very difficult for parents to provide the right supervision of their children. In the latter case, the ban is redundant: child trafficking is already recognised as a criminal activity worldwide.
Reducing poverty will have far more impact in reducing the worst forms of child labour than an international ban. The ban might also help to achieve the desired goal (assuming that it can be enforced), but it would do so in a way that would have negative effects on the whole economy, not just the poorest people.
Indeed, when the worst forms of child labour reflect a choice, it can only be so because they pay substantially better than other forms, considered non-harmful. In this case, the research shows that the existence of a market for the worst forms of child labour helps to keep wages in the market for the ''good'' forms of child labour sufficiently high to help poor families finance their children''s education.
A ban on the worst forms of child labour, by forcing all working children into the market for nonharmful child labour will lead to an overall drop in children''s wages, with adverse consequences for the welfare of all poor families and possibly on a country''s accumulation of ''human capital'' – the skills it needs for development.
The research offers a new perspective on the worst forms of child labour and policies to reduce their occurrence. The point is that using legislation like the ILO convention for this purpose is far from the best option. It focuses on curing the symptoms and may fail to address the causes of harmful forms of child labour, of which poverty is the prime component. Poverty alleviation measures are thus a much better suited and more natural mechanism.
Neglecting better focused policies would amount to punishing those whose misery is so stark that horrible forms of child labour become the best option. A food-for-education programme, for example, might help boost support for a ban on harmful forms of child labour. Because it relaxes the liquidity constraint of the poor, a food-for-education programme may encourage families to have children spend more time at school, which may be sufficient to offset the negative wage effects of the ban.
These results should not be interpreted as suggesting that child prostitution or dangerous work are good and should be encouraged. Rather, they suggest that these activities have an economic role in poor countries that cannot be ignored. Banning them without taking appropriate steps may have adverse effects on the well-being of families.
''A Theory of the Worst Forms of Child Labour'' by Sylvain Dessy and Stéphane Pallage is published in the January 2005 issue of the Economic Journal. Dessy is at the Department of Economics and CIRPEE, Université Laval, Sainte-Foy, QC, G1K 7P4, Canada; Pallage is at the Department of Economics and CIRPEE, Université du Québec à Montréal, PO Box 8888, Downtown Station, Montreal, QC, H3C 3P8, Canada.