December 3, 2004

Chau Explains Economic Issues Around Child Labor

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Who would have thought an eight-year-old could cost $5.1 trillion?

Seeking to explain the determinants, costs, benefits and public policy problems of child labor, Prof. Nancy Chau, applied economics and management, discussed the issue from an economist’s point of view yesterday in Caldwell Hall. The lecture, “Child Labor: Conceptual Issues, Evidence and the Search for Policy Response,” was the final Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) colloquium of the semester.

Chau described child labor as “work that depraves children of their childhood, their schooling, their potential and their dignity.” She said that such work is also mentally, physically, socially and morally dangerous as well as harmful to children.

Although this description characterizes all forms of child labor, Chau considers the worst forms to be forced labor, slavery and the use of children for illicit activities, such as prostitution, pornography and drug trafficking.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are about 246 million children in the world who are engaged in child labor. About 70 percent of these children work in mines, with dangerous machinery or in agriculture. About one in every six children globally is engaged in child labor. The Asia-Pacific region has the largest number of children working illegally between the ages of 5 and 14, with about 127 million, or 60 percent, of the world’s total. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second-highest number, with about 48 million, or 23 percent, of the total.

“These children are everywhere but invisible,” Chau said.

She explained the causes of child labor as more than just poverty.

“Although income is a very important determinant, there are other factors,” she said. For example, even though the United States has a high GDP, child labor still exists, she said. Another determinant of child labor, according to Chau, relies on the myth that children can be used as “substitutes” because they are better at doing specific work than adults. In countries such as Paraguay, a child’s income can make up as much as 25 percent of a family’s total income.

Imperfections in the global marketplace also lead to child labor, Chau said. Countries with low GDPs, more of a reliance on fuel primary products, more agriculture in the labor force, less private credit and higher interest rates have more children in the workplace.

Chau said the persistence of many countries to remain trapped within a child labor equilibrium makes this cycle difficult to break. Because developing countries tend to have higher fertility and mortality rates, people tend to stress quantity rather than quality. Rather than emphasizing education, they send their children to work, and the cycle repeats.

Explaining the policy implications of child labor, Chau said it is often challenging to promote the interests of children.

“Legal solutions would seem to be an answer, but laws are sometimes difficult to implement because enforcement might be an issue,” she said. “Do you still want to have laws if they cannot be enforced? Should laws be a representation of values or something people should believe in?”

Chau pointed to a 1998 U.S. ban on products made using child labor as well-meaning but misguided.

“If all you do is make a ban, the consequences may be that children are just diverted and forced to work in a worse environment,” she said.

Chau said a successful policy incentive, currently in place in Brazil, has been for the government to offer monetary compensation for keeping children in school rather than sending them to work.

According to the ILO, if child labor were abolished by 2020, the cost globally would be $760 billion while the gain would be almost seven times that, at $5.1 trillion.

Vaishali Kushan grad said she was particularly interested in the problematic relationship between developing countries, which often supply children for child labor, and developed countries, which demand children for production.

“There is always the problem of supply and demand. How should we tackle this issue?” she asked.

Paul Austin grad also found the questions that Chau posed about poverty and its consequences to be particularly insightful.

“I found the lecture very informative [especially] in terms of policy,” he said. “Pulling at one issue may cause piecemeal problems and exacerbate the problem in other areas.”

Chau first became interested in child labor after conducting research when she first came to Cornell in 1999. In addition to being the director of graduate studies at CIPA, she teaches AEM 430: International Trade Policy.

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer