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.


Laura Gordon said...

This is honestly the reason I do most of my shopping in charity shops or from ebay. If someone else bought the clothes first, it's not my problem, I'm just making sure they don't get wasted...

...Alternatively I'm preventing a person of my size in a developing country from buying good quality clothes cheap once they've been shipped out there. And depriving the person who would ship and sell the clothes of their livelihood...

Perhaps we should all become naturists?

Julia Bird said...

Anecdotally, I am not sure how feasible this even is. A friend who works for a British soft toy manufacture frequently travels to the factories they use to check the quality of the work and the conditions of the factory, ensuring among other things that there is no child labour. Yet she states that when she returns a month later to check the output and that these conditions are being kept to, she has often discovered that the factory in their contract is working within these standards, but that the toys are secretly being made at a factory down the road where conditions are below standard, and child labour employed, before being transported in to the higher cost factory and sold to the toy company at the higher, "sweat-shop free" price, She can work really hard to ensure they are buying from the high standard factories, but she can't prevent these practices when she is not present.

Unless the country itself introduces regulation and acts to prevent child labour practices, I am not sure how far a boycott will go. The "better" companies in the west, are they really achieving these standards or have they just signed contracts with factories which are using their standards, without being sure these are where the goods are eventually made? Maybe if we had a large enough boycott, meaning that all Western companies are obliged to act, forcing local governments to support them in eliminating these practices, then we would achieve something (assuming this is enhancing child welfare). But how great is the power, and incentive, of one or two companies to fully eliminate this, and can they feasibly acheive it alone?

Julia Bird said...

How much of this is just an artifact of how immigrants are distributed nationally?

Taking another example, the current floods. Let's say that geographically, 2% of the population is affected (that is an entirely made up number, just there to express my point!). Yet, a large proportion of the national population watch the news and are aware of how devastating this is for those affected. A similar survey to those above would give much higher levels of national concern rather than local concern; only 2% would say they are worried locally.

Is this really coming from a biased media? It would hardly be a valuable media if they spent 98% of their time this week reporting from the dry fields and houses in the parts of the country not affected, to bring down the national levels of concern to match local levels (equivalently, this would be a media only reporting local news).

I grew up concerned about poverty, but cannot say it was a large local concern growing up in a predominantly middle class commuter village. It's probably the same for many, poverty is not always in front of our eyes, it is often in often in other neighbourhoods and clusters. I know of the existence of food banks through the media, as do we all (nearing 100% national concern?), but it is a much smaller percentage that has had to witness the need for them through their friends and family (still, sadly, a relatively high percentage...) and so local concern would be lower than national.

Perhaps the media focuses too much on the negative impacts of immigration rather than looking at the positive effects, But in general I feel we hear a story of elsewhere, and it concerns us. Only a small percentage of those who hear the story actually live locally to the events, and so we get this mismatch in local/national concern rates.

commenter1010 said...

This talks about Senator Harkin's attempts to end child labor. Page 112 has some insight into a prime case for doing more harm than good: http://www.iie.com/publications/chapters_preview/338/6iie3322.pdf

That said, it's not the end of the debate on boycotting H&M.

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