Child Labor in a Big Company

Executive Summary

Child labor has been recognized as a pervasive issue and a threat to children’s mental and physical well-being all around the world. Working children are at risk of developmental delays, social isolation, depression, and undereducation. The problem exists due to the soaring rates of poverty in developing countries, as well as inefficient laws and codes of conduct that do not bring about the needed change. Many big corporations take advantage of the situation: they outsource manufacturing to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There they neglect regulations and enjoy financial gains because of the lower labor costs.

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The company that is criticized in this paper is one of the biggest clothing chains in the world. Established in 1974, this Swedish company soon made a name for itself in its home country and expanded globally. Today, with 62 operating countries and more than five thousand stores worldwide, the company is no stranger to human rights controversies. Financial arguments aside, child labor is a moral issue: it can be proven unacceptable from the standpoint of both Kant’s morality and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. The present paper is separated into three parts: the first one is a proposal with an overview of the issue of child labor globally and in the context of a big international corporation. The second part deals with the morality of child labor, neglect for human dignity, and exploitation in the pursuit of one’s interests. Lastly, the third part presents three media items used in a campaign against child labor that targets two key audiences: the company itself and similar organizations as well as consumers.

Proposal/Overview

The main idea behind this campaign is raising awareness of child labor: a pervasive issue that persists around the globe despite social, scientific, and economic advancements. The campaign seeks to demonstrate that forced labor involving underage individuals is not a minor aberration: it permeates countries, races, and social classes. On its official website, The International Labor Organization provides soaring statistics: at present, 211 million children between the ages of five and 14 around the world are in the workforce (“Child Labor – An Overview”). What is even worse is that more than half of them (60%) are engaged in hazardous activities. The majority of children (70%) are working in agriculture, but children are involved in many other industries as well.

To scale the situation further, one may want to take a look at the facts provided by the International Labor Organization with regard to the efforts made by developing countries to harness the child labor epidemic. As of now, the institution is overlooking about 150 countries where child labor legislation and realities leave a lot to be desired. In 2018, the International Labor Organization only regarded 9% of the countries on the list, such as Argentina, Costa-Rica, and Colombia, as making significant advancements. The majority of the countries (51%) were making moderate progress, while for one-third of them (32%), the positive changes were minimal (U.S. Department of Labor). Such countries as Afghanistan and South Sudan were found to be in the direst situation in terms of children’s rights: so far, they have made no effort to protect their youngest citizens from forced labor and exploitation.

Millions of people come into contact with the products of child labor: by buying clothes sewed by children, having their houses cleaned by underage housekeepers, or being served by teenagers at restaurants. Some consumers lack awareness of this issue while others willfully neglect it. This campaign is built on the assumption that more information on children’s exploitation should be made public so that consumers could make informed choices. Aside from that, raising awareness on the subject matter might help with visibility: people will cease to be passive bystanders and start speaking up if they witness child abuse and exploitation.

The cause that this campaign seeks to champion is children’s rights to safety, protection, and happy childhood. To say that the chosen cause is essential would be an understatement. In its 1996 Conference report, the International Labor Organization stated that “child labor [was] the single most important source of child exploitation and child abuse in the world […] (“Child Labor – An Overview”).” Today, numerous studies suggest that labor is disruptive to children’s physical and mental well-being. Working can impact a child’s social development: when engaged in the workforce from early childhood, a person is forced to spend time away from peers (SOMO). Such children are likely to be deprived of social activities, which leaves them incapable of proper interaction.

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Some evidence shows that even adolescents who work may suffer from the adverse impact of labor. Teenagers who spend more than twenty hours per week working have been found to be more at risk of developing deviant behaviors such as drug abuse and aggression. Working children and teens lack the normal rhythm of life appropriate for their age group, which leads to their disintegration from society. When fulfilling challenging, life-risking duties on the job, children might be confronted with emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration, and stress that they do not have mental resources nor experience to deal with (SOMO). As a result, the effects of psychological traumas might linger and make their way into adulthood, haunting a former exploited child.

Lastly, child labor is associated with developmental delays, which are the result of high health risks from inhumane working conditions and physical tasks that are too advanced for children. It has been noticed that children who are involved in intense labor are often smaller than those who are playing and growing naturally (SOMO). Working children are also at a higher risk for diseases such as respiratory illnesses from exposure to dust particles and toxic chemicals.

The question arises as to precisely what predisposes child labor into existence. Firstly, poverty and unemployment are still a global problem: according to the data gathered by the United Nations, every fourth person on Earth lives below the poverty line (“World Bank: Education in Crisis”). Because of the intensified poverty in some parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many children are forced to join the workforce to help their families to cover the most basic needs. Another factor is the limited access to free universal education: in 2016, 61 million children worldwide never attended primary school, and 200 million were out of secondary school (“World Bank: Education in Crisis”). Not going to school shrinks children’s chances for a good career in the future; instead, since the early years, they start working dangerous physical jobs.

Further, in countries infamous for ubiquitous child labor, laws or codes of conduct are either not yet in place or inefficient. For instance, export and manufacturing might include several layers of production and outsourcing. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to monitor the reenactment of age restrictions and the provision of the right working conditions at each stage. Lastly, extensive subcontracting can purposefully conceal the exploitation of underage workers.

In the pursuit of economic gains, large corporations often outsource manufacturing to less developed countries where age restrictions are not that easily imposable. Since the manufacturers are operating remotely, corporations rarely inspect and supervise their contractors. One such company is H, a large Swedish corporation that first went public at the Stockholm Stock Exchange in 1974. Since then, H was able to expand globally, reach customers in more than 62 countries, and open more than five thousand stores. As a whole, the clothing industry, of which H is part, has been often criticized for unethical practices. The company in question has raised concerns regarding workers’ rights across its many production factories.

The most alarming charges deal with reports that demonstrate the extensive use of child labor in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Besides, in Myanmar, children were paid as little as 13 pence per hour: twice as little as the minimum wage of 26 pence per hour, or around two pounds a day (Chamberlain). Chamberlain explains that H and other clothing brands have been vehemently participating in the so-called “race to the bottom:” each company is trying to cut labor costs as much as possible. Now that traditional lower-cost contractors such as China started dealing with child labor and increasing wages, Western brands moved their production to poorer countries. Chamberlain writes that clothing companies and especially H have been facing criticism for a number of years. Just when it seemed that the companies understood the message, new reports resurfaced.

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What aggravated the situation is that H showed no remorse regarding its unethical practices. In its official public statement, the Swedish company pointed out that the legal working age in Myanmar was fourteen (Bain). According to the country’s laws, it was legal for teenagers to work half a day. In the same breath, H condemned general child labor, which made their statement even less convincing. It seemed that H did not intend to change anytime soon. What should be a reality check for H is its failing sales, especially in the year 2018. Previously, the Swedish company was known for its slick, well-developed supply chain, but it soon became outsmarted by its competitors, the most serious of them being Z. What Z is doing differently is moving its factories closer to its core markets. Moulds reports that 65% of Z’s products are made in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and North Africa, while H primarily outsources to Asia. As a result, Z was able to reduce its supply chain speed down to five weeks, while for H, the process can take up to six months. Besides, Z enjoys better customer reception and feedback due to its more ethical practices. Tackling ethical issues might not seem to be directly correlating with financial gains; however, it is a long-term investment into the future of the company’s reputation.

The present campaign seeks to reach out to two target audiences at once. First, it is essential to communicate the message to consumers, especially those that are using the products and services of large corporations. Knowingly or unknowingly, consumers support unethical companies with their money. Another target audience that this campaign intends to reach is large businesses. The defining consumption trend of the last couple of decades has been a strong leaning toward consciousness. Mintel Press Team (2015) reports that more than half of US consumers (56%) would stop buying from companies that do not meet their ethical standards. Furthermore, one-third of American consumers go as far as rejecting an unethical brand entirely, even in the absence of a viable alternative.

Another finding by Mintel Press Team (2015) that is worth mentioning is that 27% of consumers would switch to another supplier that they consider more ethical even if it meant purchasing goods or services of lower quality. Taking these facts into consideration, it is safe to say that the use of child labor may as well ruin a company’s reputation once ane and for all and repel customers. Therefore, this campaign seeks to show that not only is it morally unacceptable to exploit children but also not exactly financially sound. Hopefully, it will send the company the right message, and it will reconsider its business practices.

Beyond the initial proposal, the present paper contains two core parts. The second part deals with the morality of child labor that cannot be disregarded. As it has been mentioned earlier, H has so far shown little to no remorse and appealed to the local Myanmar laws for the justification of their practices. Therefore, there is a need for a more in-depth, more analytical philosophical dissection of the subject matter. For that, two approaches were chosen: Kant’s morality and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. This section comprehensively shows that child labor denigrates the innate dignity of a human being as it turns him or her from an end to a means to an end. Kant’s morality demonstrates that child exploiters, such as the H company, violate the categorical imperative by introducing double standards. Aristotle’s virtue ethics explains why child exploitation does not fall under the definition of virtuous behavior. Further, child labor negates the notion of distributive justice and makes compensatory justice impossible.

The third part contains three media items, the first of which is an analytical review of the state of the selected issue. The review provides an insight into the fashion industry as a whole and the unethical practices at H in particular. The second item is an interview with a former child labor victim who used to work for a big clothing line. The interview is emotionally charged and filled with detail: it opens the reader’s eyes to the realities of child exploitation. The last media item is a Twitter thread with a lawyer who devoted his career to fighting for workers’ rights with the focus on child labor.

Child Labor and Its Morality

To determine the moral boundaries of the chosen ethical issue, this part employs several theories and philosophical approaches. The first theory that will be used to clarify the morality of child labor is Kantian ethics and its central concepts: the moral law, categorical imperative, universalizability, and humanity. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was primarily dissatisfied with the direction that contemporary philosophy had taken. Namely, the thinker considered subjectivism and utilitarianism to be inherently morally faulty since these two approaches only condemned crimes and misconduct because of the net adverse consequences. Kant argued that a person imbued with utilitarian values does not use morals as a basis for their behavior: instead, they prioritize the practicality of a situation and their own interests.

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The philosopher’s distaste for such a morally dubious stance led to the creation of two types of imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives apply to those who take action only to attain certain ends. In the context of child labor, a hypothetical imperative would be to force a child to engage in tedious and hazardous work only to yield desired financial gains. One may contradict this point by saying that the exploiter might not be aware of the adverse effects of child labor. Luckily, Kant’s philosophical framework has an answer to this dilemma, as well. The German philosophical supposed that without human beings, nothing would be valued: it is people that tell good from evil and right from wrong. The ability to come to this realization grants every person autonomy of thought and action. They develop the capacity to reason their own way through the complexities of human existence and make well-informed decisions instead of giving in to the opinion of others.

Building on Kant’s argument about independent reasoning, one may safely assume that exploiters’ alleged unawareness does not excuse their deeds. They might have grown up in an environment where child labor was considered the norm. Yet, nothing prevents them from educating themselves and changing their stance on the issue. Another Kantian concept that might prove to be transformative in this process is that of a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is the opposite of a hypothetical imperative: it is an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be met regardless of the circumstances. The most common translation of its first formulation goes as follows: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law (Kant 735).” As much as the formulation might appear cryptic at first glance, the idea behind it is quite simple. It compels one to think whether any of their actions or decisions should be universally accepted.

The concept of the categorical imperative can be readily applied to the issue of child labor. Let us assume a hypothetical situation in which a child exploiter has children on their own. Most likely, he or she cares deeply about their mental and physical well-being; they would like to protect their children from harm at all costs and provide the best life opportunities for them. The categorical imperative would locate a contradiction in a child exploiter’s motives: while he or she cares for their own offspring, they actively harm someone else’s kids. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, the worst and quite common kinds of child labor include sexual exploitation, which is often a result of human trafficking, and recruitment for participation in armed forces. It is safe to say that no parent would want to expose their children to these kinds of traumatizing situations; hence, the question as to why some children do deserve protection while others suffer from abuse.

There exists another version of the categorical imperative in which Kant states that one should “always treat people as ends in themselves, never merely as a means to one’s own ends.” This Kantian maximum is also known as the principle of the end. To understand this principle, one must recall Kant’s belief regarding what constitutes a person’s morality. The German philosopher was convinced that every person was a free and rational creature, with the autonomy of thought and action. If someone treats a fellow human being as a means to an end (a tool to pursue their interests), then they are mostly dismissive of the freedom and rationality of this said person. He or she is refused their humanity and turned into an object that serves a particular purpose.

What child exploiters essentially do is denying a child’s humanity and complexity: the unity of their bodies, minds, and souls. It should be noted that the notion that children are entitled to basic human rights is relatively new. In its overview of children’s rights history, Unicef states that it was not until 1924 that the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child (“History of Child’s Rights”). The Declaration articulated adults’ responsibilities in regards to children: means for their development, specialized help in times of need, and priority for relief. Besides, according to the document, children have the right to economic freedom and protection from exploitation; and an upbringing that instills social consciousness and duty. In Kantian terms, the statutes of the Declaration define a child as an end, and not a means to an end. All the obligations enlisted in the document advance children’s development and help them grow into well-adapted, confident, and healthy adults.

Child labor, on the other hand, does the opposite: by making the exploiter’s interests a priority, it hinders children’s healthy development. One may argue that recruiting children into the workforce does present some benefits: they have money at their disposal, gain work experience, and learn life lessons. Yet, this argument is only feasible without real-life context and hard data. For example, as the U. S. Department of Labor reports, many of the world’s emerging economies exploit children by making them work in such conditions where even adult workers would be at risk of hurting themselves or even dying.

For example, in Guatemala, children as young as seven-year-olds are forced to insert fuses into firecrackers. It is a dangerous job that can lead to explosions and burns. India is another country infamous for a large number of children in the workforce: at the moment, as many as 50,000 children work in the glass industry, spending hours in front of burning furnaces (U.S. Department of Labor). In Bangladesh, Egypt, and Pakistan, the U. S. Department of Labor detected cases when children worked in tanneries where they came into contact with corrosive chemicals and bacterial contamination. In summation, child labor is associated with inhumane, harmful work conditions.

Taking the facts mentioned above into consideration, it is impossible to see how a child in this situation can be anything other than a means to an end. Fulfilling tedious and dangerous duties and risking one’s life deprives a child of a healthy childhood. This work experience does not count toward the professionalism needed in their adult life. Instead, working long, exhausting hours, an underage individual does not have enough time or energy to focus on school and other meaningful activities that could guarantee them excellent opportunities in the future. As for the money, even if a child is paid anything, their exploiter benefits much more from this immoral situation.

Lastly, one might want to argue with Kant’s conceptualization of morality by saying that, in some particular cases, children do not suffer too severely. In actuality, they might be working short hours while helping their underprivileged families and communities stay afloat. Again, the German philosopher’s deontology has a framework for solving such moral dilemmas as well. Kant ties the moral worth of a person to their ability to act on the categorical imperative. For the latter, what matters is not the consequences of a person’s actions but their actual motivation. Therefore, according to Kant, the fact that some children might as well be safe from harm and benefit financially (positive consequences) does not excuse their exploiters. Their motivation was faulty, to begin with: they wanted to recruit underage individuals illegally, interfere with their development, and make a profit.

Kant’s ethics are not the only philosophical framework applicable to the issue of child labor. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle put forward the so-called virtue ethics that define what a virtuous person is. An idea that is central to virtue ethics is that of justice and fairness. Aristotle articulated his views on the subject matter in the following manner: “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally.” This message should be decoded as “individuals should be treated equally unless they differ in some ways that require special treatment (Hutchinson 273).” In the context of labor and workforce, children and adults are not equals, even though both categories of people should enjoy the same freedoms. First and foremost, children lack wisdom and life experience: they are not yet able to tell the good from the evil and the right from the wrong. In fact, studies on children’s development show that during childhood and early teen years, individuals’ brains are practically malleable. This particularity makes underage people especially vulnerable to external influence. Children and teenagers cannot resist the pressure or, at times, even understand that the situation that they have ended up in is morally wrong.

Another significant difference between adults and children is the resources they have at their disposal. Presumably, adults do manage to accumulate at least some wealth and build connections, that together with knowledge and experience, help them survive in life. Children rarely have such: they are dependents and underprivileged by definition. Hence, they need to be supported and protected and not exploited. In accordance with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, no virtuous person would decide to hurt a child by making demands appropriate for an adult worker.

The lack of differentiation in treatment is not the only issue that can be detected using Aristotle’s moral framework. It was further developed to include more types of justices with the most relevant to the contents of the present paper being distributive and compensatory. Distributive justice states that goods and benefits should be distributed in a just way (Hutchinson 82). In relation to children’s rights, this idea implies the unacceptability of a situation in which some children are privileged, and others suffer from abuse and neglect. Since all children are born equal, they should enjoy the same rights: health, education, protection, shelter, and healthy development.

Compensatory justice argues that if a person was mistreated or injured, he or she deserves compensation for their mental or physical suffering (Hutchinson 102). The question arises as to whether all kinds of pain could be really made up for: after all, the most traumatizing events have lifelong effects, and the affected person might never get back to normal. For instance, labor and sexual exploitation as a result of human trafficking are found to have a hugely detrimental impact on its victims. Hemmings et al. explain that being subject to human trading puts an enormous strain on a person’s physical and mental health. Among the symptoms that are often reported by the victims are headache, fatigue, dizziness, and stomach pain (Hemmings et al). It is readily imaginable how malnourishment, harsh living conditions, and inhumane, cruel treatment can lead to the development of chronic diseases. It would not be an overstatement to assume that they are likely to persist even after a child is rescued.

Emotional and psychological consequences may present an even greater challenge for child victims, their families, and medical professionals. Hemmings et al. name such mental disorders as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as some of the most common consequences of being trafficked. All of these conditions have the potential to become debilitating: the emotional pain, grieving, and frustration are so high that an individual is unable to function (Hemmings et al.). Human trafficking victims will likely require years of therapy and treatment before fully recovering and returning to their old selves. Given that childhood and adolescence are formative years, being subject to abuse during these periods may prove to be even more hurtful and disruptive. A child who fell victim to trafficking and exploitation is likely to carry the memories of horrific events for years and feel hindered in his or her daily life. Arguably, neither money or other benefits can return a person their psychological health, innocence, and time stolen by criminals.

In summation, child labor can be considered a morally corrupt practice from two different perspectives: Kantian ethics and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. The German philosopher Kant saw people as the source of moral values: to him, no other creature was able to tell the right from the wrong. This mental capacity gave humans freedom, rationality, and decision power. By recruiting children, exploiters choose to stay unaware of the harmful impact of their actions; besides, they disregard children’s humanity. Exploiters violate Kant’s categorical imperative: they use double standards and see children not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. From the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s point of view, such people do not act virtuously because they do not uphold justice. Children are not like adults: they are innocent, fragile, inexperienced, and need protection. They deserve rights and freedoms delivered through distributive justice and should be compensated for their suffering if it is possible.

Works Cited

Bain, Marc. H&M Reportedly Used Garment Factories That Worked Teens for 12-hour Shifts. 2020. Web.

Chamberlain, Gillian. How High Street Clothes Were Made by Children in Myanmar for 13p an Hour. 2020. Web. 

“Child Labor – An Overview.” 2020. Web.

Hemmings, Stephen et al. “Responding to the Health Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking: A Systematic Review.” BMC Health Services Research, vol. 16, no. 1, 2016, p. 320.

“History of Child Rights.” 2020. Web.

Hitchings-Hales, James. Hundreds of H&M and Gap Factory Workers Abused Daily, Report Says. 2018. Web.

Hutchinson, Douglas S. The Virtues of Aristotle. Routledge, 2015.

Kant, Immanuil. Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Mintel Press Team. 56% of Americans Stop Buying from Brands They Believe Are Unethical, 2015. Web.

Moulds, Josephine. Child Labor in the Fashion Industry. 2020. Web.

Somo. Fact Sheet Child labour in the Textile & Garment Industry, 2015. Web.

U.S. Department of Labor. Child Labor Report Book. 2018. Web.

“World Bank: Education in Crisis – Over 260 Million Children Do Not Go To School.”2017. Web.

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