Before moving to Asia, I thought child labor was a black and white issue. The term carries many negative connotations and most people hear that term and immediately label it unethical. I might be going nuts but, for me, child labor is now in the grey area.
Child labor isn’t something you really see living in Phuket but it’s certainly an issue all over this continent. Last week we watched an episode of the documentary series “Vice”. It was on Western companies like “Gap” using child labor in Cambodia and Bangaladesh to sew their clothes. I got annoyed when they reported public outrage in the U.S. pressured Gap to close their factory in Cambodia, which was using child laborers.
In countries like Cambodia, those kids aren’t likely to be going to school anyways. Kids in rural Asia often help with the animals, help in the fields, or work in a family restaurant. If they do go to school, it is a basic education and they will still probably work after school.
Life isn’t a walk in the park for most people on this continent. Outside money injections, like a factory, can be a saving grace. Factories are good jobs, they pay day in and day out. Farms don’t pay during droughts, factories do. Farms mean working in the sun and mosquitos. And a factory job might seem like a grim life but a farm isn’t a future either.
Factories are businesses, they involve real world business lessons (quality assurance, inventory management, order handling, etc). No, it’s no business school and yes, a worker’s future is still not bright, but it is improved. In some cases, like in Cambodia, “improved” would be a drastic understatement. Cambodia is a country where many young, poor children end up in child prostituion. Factories, poor conditions or not, are often a better alternative in poor countries that just do not have job opportunities for their people.
I agree that billion dollar corporations running factories with terrible conditions is a disgusting practice. But so is closing the factory and turning your backs on those people. It’s such a black and white way to think, and both methods are unethical.
From my perspective, the solution is allowing child labor but demanding a better quality of life and future for all workers. In third world countries, doing so would cost next to nothing. Educate the workers, just a few hours a day. If they must live on site, provide a basic but clean place to live. Provide at least the cheap medical services, vaccines and malaria meds, etc.
There are places on Earth where life is hard, reality is grim, and futures are not bright. It seems to me that America has, at least a few times, demanded child labour factories be shut and, accidentally, ejected children back into a harder world than they were in.