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Tuesday, January 2, 2024

What Many Critics of Child Labor Overlook

Child labor can be fairly brutal, but the alternatives are often far worse.

Image Credit: King Baudouin Foundation - Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

Mars, the candy company, is facing criticism over its use of child labor. These criticisms are in light of a CBS News special report finding that many children, some as young as five, work in fields in Ghana that supply the candy company its cocoa.

This is not the first time Mars, Inc. has faced heat over the use of child labor. Back in August, International Rights Advocates sued the Biden administration to block the importation of cocoa that utilizes child labor as an input. The targets of this proposed importation ban would have been Hershey, Mars, Nestlé, and Cargill.

Mars has been trying to cut down on child labor for more than two decades. However, because of inefficient monitoring of cocoa fields—or an unwillingness to monitor—they have been unable to eradicate the practice completely, as this report finds.

This entire episode should demonstrate how economic illiteracy has seeped into the minds of Western media and the general population. People honestly think that prohibiting child labor will improve the welfare of children. Anyone who has been in an argument with someone about the free market will undoubtedly bump against the child labor argument at some point. “Without regulation, child labor would be everywhere!” This argument, however, suffers from a major problem: it assumes that child labor is the worst thing that can happen to children.

Child labor is certainly not a great sight to behold. Little Johnny sweating bullets in a steel mill is clearly not what parents desire for their children. But before we pronounce a judgment on this practice, we need to consider what the alternative is.

When examining child labor, we must bear in mind that child labor is one option out of a set of options the child faces. What happens when you prohibit child labor? The children will go to their next best option. In countries that allow child labor, the next best option is usually starvation, poverty, or prostitution.

Benjamin Powell notes in this article:

Children work because their families are desperately poor, and the meager addition to the family income they can contribute is often necessary for survival. Banning child labor through trade regulations or governmental prohibitions often simply forces the children into less-desirable alternatives. When U.S. activists started pressuring Bangladesh into eliminating child labor, the results were disastrous.

Powell cites Paul Krugman on the disastrous effects of a proposed child labor law that would have banned exports from countries that employed child labor. Krugman states:

The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets—and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

Powell also notes that the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that many of the children went right back to factory work in regions where monitoring was more difficult. Essentially, this ban was either ineffective or disastrous for children.

“But what about those in forced labor?” In the child labor debate, many conflate child labor with slave labor. Conservatives do the same thing when talking about sex trafficking and prostitution. The truth is that the two are distinct, and to conflate them is to confuse the debate. Involuntary and voluntary servitude exist in all societies. It may sometimes be hard to differentiate them due to inadequate data collection, but not all child labor is slave labor.

With that in mind, wouldn’t banning child labor be beneficial to the child in cases of slave labor? This is doubtful.

Consider slave owners. You must not ask what the child will alternate into, but what the slave owner will alternate the child into. In the case of slave labor, the slave owner is choosing between various alternative uses for the slave, and if you prohibit one form of labor, then the slave owner will direct his or her slaves out of that kind of labor and into others. Prohibiting all forms of child labor will cause the slave owners to direct child slaves into illegal industries so as to avoid detection by the authorities. Given the prevalence of violence in black markets, these slaves will likely be exposed to more violence than they were before. Again, in the case of Bangladeshi children mentioned above, prostitution might very well be the next best alternative that slave owners choose for their slaves.

Ultimately, when regulating these actions, the policymakers are not choosing between enslaved children and freed children, but between enslaved children in legal industries (e.g., cocoa fields) and enslaved children in illegal industries (e.g., prostitution). Maybe your conscience will be dirtied if you buy the products made from slavery or child labor, but passing a universal ban on the importation of these products will only spell disaster for the children involved.

Let’s apply this to the case of Mars’s use of child labor in Ghana.

In CBS’s report, it is mentioned that the interviewed children long to be in school. Unfortunately, scarcity will face them regardless of their desires. Consider that many of the children who are in school on Mars’s dime harvest cocoa either before or after school. Forcing or blackmailing Mars to cease child labor will result in the mass expulsion of children from the fields and into jobs that are less desirable, such as prostitution, which is no small problem in Ghana. Perhaps they will even starve as a result.

The CBS report does not imply that the children are slaves. In fact, they seem to be working in the fields as an effort to provide for their family. Depriving them of this stream of income, regardless of how meager the income appears, will only harm these children and their families.

The bottom line is that forcing Mars to cease employment of child labor or prohibiting child labor altogether will have a disastrous effect on child welfare. Human rights groups need to learn this fact. Unfortunately, human rights groups seem to be merely satisfied with getting laws passed rather than actually enhancing the living conditions of children. But surely the latter is more important than the hollow words of politicians.


  • Benjamin Seevers is a Mises Institute Fellow and holds a BA in economics from Grove City College. He will begin his PhD in economics at West Virginia University in fall 2023. His research interests include private governance, public policy, and libertarian ethics.