NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Child Labor In Asia

March 7, 1996

Americans and Europeans are demanding protection from Asian exporters who use low-cost labor, sometimes including children, to make products that are competitive in world markets. These campaigns can be effective, as in the lobbying effort against Pakistan's rug-making industry sparked by the death of a 12-year-old former laborer who had spoken out against harsh working conditions.

Although human rights groups concluded that the youth died from an act of random violence, rather than political revenge, the incident focused attention on the use of child labor in Pakistan.

  • The level of Pakistan's carpet exports in the last six months of 1995 fell 50 percent compared to a year before, to less than $50 million.
  • However, the law of unintended consequences applies: when factories in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh are closed or forced to stop employing children, the children often end up in even worse industrial jobs or laboring on farms.
  • The problem is not the opportunities for work created by factories, but a combination of poverty and unequal opportunities due to the feudal effects of the caste system.

Western labor unions are calling for trade restrictions against Asian countries that allow child labor. Others are concerned about the welfare of the children. However, Asian observers suggest that more foreign investment and trade can help subvert the caste system and raise living standards -- allowing families now struggling against malnutrition to send their children to school instead of work.

Source: Editorial, "A Debate for Grown-Ups," Far Eastern Economic Review, March 7, 1996.


Browse more articles on International Issues