Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 2: February 11, 1997 

UNICEF's Miscues on Child Labor

Interviewed about working conditions at a factory in Indonesia, the Nike plant manager talked about how lucky the female workers were to have a job. "If you don't have a job, you're a prostitute, a beggar, a thief," the expatriate manager told Business Week correspondent Mark L. Clifford.

"Such attitudes won't wash any longer," Clifford wrote in a December 23 Business Week commentary titled "Keep the Heat on Sweatshops." But such attitudes are widespread. They appear even within organizations mandated to improve children's lives. Take a highly reputed organization like UNICEF. It too sometimes paints a grotesque picture of child labor by suggesting that garment factories employing poor boys and girls in a developing country like Bangladesh are saving them from fates far worse, such as a life of prostitution.

One purpose of a new UNICEF report, "The State of the World's Children--1997," is to argue against the supposed evils of economic sanctions and boycotts. In doing so, the report offers a quick look at "a case of good motives gone wrong" and its alleged consequences for underage garment workers in Bangladesh. Garment industry employers there, says UNICEF, "panicked" as the result of a 1992 U.S. Senate bill (never passed) that sought to prohibit imports of goods made by children under 15. Previously, Bangladesh government officials and employers, sometimes the same people, had consistently denied that the industry employed any young children (a point the UNICEF report ignores). Nevertheless, the industry announced that it had to fire the children it had denied hiring. The industry's allies then spread the word that unfortunately the children would now have to work on garbage dumps or in prostitution.

 A Study About A Study

The UNICEF report recycles that allegation. "A study sponsored by international organizations," the report says, "took the unusual step of tracing some of the [dismissed] children to see what happened to them after their dismissal. Some were found working in more hazardous situations, in unsafe workshops where they were paid less, or in prostitution."

Strangely, the organizations sponsoring the study are anonymous. Even more strangely, no copy of this study has ever been made available, despite repeated efforts of responsible U.S. authorities to get a copy. It is a serious charge--and, if untrue, a slander-- to say that "some" Bangladeshi parents sent their newly unemployed girls and boys into prostitution. A new study by the Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center downgrades the allegation to a "fear." The Center study states: "No one was able to track what happened to these children."
A newspaper editorial based on UNICEF's charge drew this moral in a headline saying "Boycotts won't solve problem." But who says they do? Boycotts are designed to stir the consciences of those responsible for exploiting little girls and boys. Newspaper editorials don't solve the problem either. But that doesn't mean they are useless.

Making a Myth About a Myth

The UNICEF report points out that several "myths" surround the issue of child labor. It correctly condemns the view that "Child labor will never be eliminated until poverty disappears." That recognition is progress. But UNICEF is off base when it condemns another so-called "myth": "The only way to make headway against child labour is for consumers and governments to apply pressure through sanctions and boycotts."

UNICEF raises a strawman easy to knock down. Of course there is no "only way" to make headway on this complex problem. The authors of the report contrive the myth as a part of its argument to discredit the usefulness of international pressure to achieve progress for children. Boycotts and sanctions have been, and are, used to achieve reforms in environmental pollution, piracy of intellectual property, sexual harassment, international trafficking in drugs, and other serious problems. Why are child labor reforms less important?

The evidence has now become undeniable: under current rules, international trade and investment promotes the growth of sweatshops, many of them illegally employing underage girls and boys. Those profiting from this trafficking in children, and academics promulgating the doctrine of unfettered markets, are mounting a vigorous counter-offensive of self-serving rationalizations. Unfortunately, they get ammunition from several parts of the UNICEF report, which will be analyzed further in a later Bulletin.

How Free Market Imperils Freedom

Challenges to traditional economic principles taught as Gospel in our best universities, and accepted as Gospel by policy-makers, are coming from some unusual sources. Here are two appearing in current magazines: Fishman's article is highly readable. Tongue in cheek, he hopes that multinational exploitation of Third World workers will continue unimpeded and thus make him rich as an investor in "emerging economies." He is generous in his tips to persons and institutions with similar financial motivations. He suggests, for example, that they consult a new International Labor Organization (ILO) report, "Child Labor: Targeting the Intolerable," for lucrative investment opportunities in countries that expose children as young as five to pesticides, explosives, radioactive substances, dangerous machinery, flying glass, and so on. Another tip: "You can't get much better than forced labor, and that's what investments in some companies doing business in Burma deliver."

Soro's article is devastating because he speaks with the authority of an insider who became fabulously wealthy by using the system he criticizes. His experience has led him to believe that free-wheeling capitalism endangers the foundations of democratic society. In the opening paragraph of his article he writes:

"In the Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern--the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat."
Soro's alarm signal deserves to reach the topmost officials of the Clinton-Gore administration, including the new Secretary of State.


Foreign Affairs and China's Workers

Modesty prevents me from making the same point about a long article in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, "China's Troubled Workers," which challenges some of the conventional wisdom about the People's Republic. The article describes the plight of China's working men and women under Deng Xiaoping's reforms, analyzes the fruitless efforts of Beijing to cope with growing unrest, and makes an empirical case for a new reform: allowing China's workers to have a role in the historic and risky transformation underway in the People's Republic. Anita Chan of Australian National University, a sociologist who has pioneered in on-site research of working conditions in China, co-authored this article with the editor of this page.

A copy can be ordered from Foreign Affairs via the Internet: The magazine's publisher, the Council on Foreign Relations, has a useful Web page at


Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail)

Bulletin No. II-2: February 11, 1997


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