07 February 2014

Is it wrong to shop from places that use child labour?

I got told off recently for shopping at H&M because of some sweatshop / child labour scandal (a burden I share with Beyonce who has also been criticised for her H&M links). But is a boycott really the right individual action?

Two new(ish) papers look at the impact of government bans on child labour in India:

One economics paper by Bharadwaj, Lakdawala, and Li (via Berk Ozler) looks at the impact of India’s Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. They find that the ban led to a decrease in child wages and an increase in child labour. This is consistent with the theory that families use child labour to reach subsistence levels - so a ban which leads to a reduction in child wages, will make families make their children work more to earn the same amount and reach that subsistence level.  

Second is a note by my colleagues (Ian MacAuslan, Valentina Barca, Yashodhan Ghorpade and Gitanjali Pande) based on qualitative fieldwork in India (150 interviews and focus groups with both children and adults). Their findings support the results of Bharadwaj et al - parents make rational trade-offs, child labour is driven by household poverty, and outright bans might be counter-productive - better to invest in social protection and improving the quality of schooling.

What does all of this imply for me and my new H&M jumper? I'm not really sure. I asked the question a few years ago in Juba, and further quick googling hasn't got me any closer to an answer. I suppose the theory of change is that individual boycotts could force H&M to improve their procurement and make sure no child labour is involved. But this could either lead to those children leaving the factory and going to school, or perhaps more likely and in line with these two papers, a reduction in the going wage rate for children, and an actual increase in child labour.

Any ideas? References? Once again, I'm left wishing that there existed some rigorous impartial GiveWell-style analysis for consumption decisions so I could outsource some more everyday moral dilemmas and not have to do the thinking myself.

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