Reconsidering Child Labor

I'm not advocating or promoting the practice of child labor in Third World or "emerging" nations. Indeed, if I had the power to fix all that needed fixing, I (like most people) would start by creating a world where every child was provided a stable, loving family, exemplary nutrition, free education, an appreciation of modern art, and an abundance of creative free-play. Basically, have them all live like white kids from the better parts of Manhattan.

Moreover, as a labor writer and former union representative, I'm well aware of labor's role (going back to before Mary "Mother Jones" Harris) in abolishing child labor in the U.S. The drive to outlaw child labor in this country wasn't led by Congress or the Church or philanthropists. It was led by America's labor unions.

But there's a side to child labor that is not only complicated, it's riven with paradox. For one thing, when I lived in India, those of us who objected to young girls operating looms in Kashmiri rug factories didn't have a problem with children working (Little House on the Prairie style) on their family farms--girls sewing, helping with the cooking, feeding the chickens, and boys caring for livestock, harvesting, and cleaning the barn.

It's easy to overlook (or dismiss) the fact that back when the U.S. was still mainly a rural economy--and before there was free public education (free elementary schooling wasn't available to all Americans until near the end of the 19th century)--children routinely put in almost as many hours of work as the adults did. Not only did these kids do the work, the work they did actually mattered. It wasn't done to "build character"; it was done to prevent the farm from failing.

Another thing that's easy to overlook (or dismiss) is that virtually every society in history that evolved from a rural economy to an industrial economy went through its "sweatshop" period. A society doesn't go from a hard scrapple, dawn-to-dark agricultural existence to gleamingly clean, air-conditioned assembly lines overnight.

That level of industrial evolution generally requires a transitional period of a generation or two, and unfortunately, that "transition" takes the form of grungy sweatshops. Europe experienced it, the U.S. experienced it, and the Third World is experiencing it.

Also, the abolition of child labor in the U.S. wasn't universally welcomed. Far from it. To poor families living on the precarious edge of sustainability, losing the precious income provided by their children could mean the difference between scratching out a living and being thrown into abject poverty. It's no exaggeration to say that, as noble and humanitarian-minded as the abolition of child labor was, it also resulted in the ruination of many families.

Which brings us to the Third World. When I lived in India many years ago I was taken to task by a college political science professor, a member of the CPI (Communist Party of India), who regarded my objections to child labor (I had seen 10-year-old boys running lathes in a haphazard machine shop) not only as sanctimonious meddling, but as a form of "cultural imperialism."

Communist or not, this professor recognized the stark realities of the marketplace, one of which was that, like it or not, these children were providing a valuable contribution to their parents, a contribution that, undeniably, was helping to keep the family unit together bodily and spiritually.

When I tried arguing that relegating 10-year-old children to factory work (instead of sending them to school) was a self-perpetuating proposition--that without the benefit of an education these 10-year-olds would one day be 20-year-olds, still consigned to menial labor--he flatly rejected it.

Maybe it was pride, maybe it was being sick to death of Americans thinking they can preach to the world, or maybe it was a valid observation, but he insisted this phenomenon was transitory.

As for "self-perpetuation," he reminded me that child labor hadn't "perpetuated" itself in either Europe or the U.S. So why would it perpetuate itself in Asia? He then politely urged me to butt out of Indian affairs.

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