by Peter Dorman (from Econospeak)
Child Labor Defended by the Left
Well, some of the left, but they probably represent the main currents of progressive thought among intellectuals. Those who not part of the charmed circle of researchers, activists and policy-makers in the realm of child labor may not know that a storm has been whipped up over regulation of children’s work. A number of academics and heads of NGOs have stepped forward to say that lots of child labor is OK, and the blanket condemnation of it is oppressive. They want to scrap international agreements that set restrictions on the employment of children, and they support efforts at the national level to repeal child labor regulations.
The flashpoint is Bolivia, where the laws were rewritten to allow children as young as 10 to work alongside their parents and to enter formal employment at 12. “To eliminate work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people’s social conscience,” says Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales. This was the culmination of a campaign led by UNATsBO, an organization representing Bolivian working children, led by children with advice from adults. One of their adult advisors is Manfred Liebel, a German political scientist. His writings combine familiar radical tropes with passionate belief in the virtue of child labor.
Here are a couple of representative snippets from one of his articles dating from 2003, the year that UNATSBO was founded:
[Working children’s organizations are] questioning traditional age hierarchies and establishing new, more egalitarian relationships between the generations. But they also personify a massive criticism of different aspects of the western bourgeois way of thinking and behaviour and pave the way for an understanding of the subject until now unknown or unaccepted in the western world.
In accordance with other social movements of repressed and excluded population groups in the South, the working children’s organizations reclaim and practise a subject-understanding and a subject-existence based on human dignity and the respect for human life. (p. 273)
The subject-understanding and the subject-praxis of the working children’s organizations also go beyond the modern western understanding ofchildhood. According to this understanding, the children are indeed granted a certain autonomy and given protection from risks, but these concessions happen at the cost of an active and responsible role for the children in society. The children are practically excluded from adult life and assigned to special reservations in which they are ‘raised’, ‘educated’ and prepared for the future. Their possible influence on this future is confined to the individual ‘qualification’ of each person, yet not to decisions about the arrangement of social relationships. These remain reserved for the adults or the power elite. (p. 274)
Well, you get the idea. The attempt to eliminate child labor denies the essential humanity of children. It wants to impose a capitalist conception of their role in society which prioritizes their future productivity at the expense of what they can do in the present. It is hierarchical and expresses a colonial, eurocentric mindset.