VoxEU Column Development

Child labour: Is international activism the solution or the problem?

Rich-country governments and consumer groups pressure poor countries to discourage child labour through boycotts and international labour standards. Yet child labour continues unabated. This column suggests international activism may be partially to blame, because reducing the use of child labour in the formal sector decreases domestic pressures to prohibit it throughout the economy.

Ever since children toiled in the mines and factories of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, industrialisation and economic development have stirred humanitarian concern about child labour. The first child-labour regulations (the British Factory Acts of the early 1800s) were aimed at the appalling working conditions children suffered in textile mills. Another source of social concern was the conflict between child labour and educational opportunities. The campaign against child labour gained steam throughout the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century most industrialised countries had strict child-labour and compulsory education laws.

In the days of the Industrial Revolution, the regulation of child labour was strictly a domestic affair. Today, child labour has become an international issue. For example, the working conditions of children in developing countries are a main focus of student activism in the US, where “anti-sweatshop” campaigns are directed at multinational companies accused of exploiting children. Consumer activists also run fair-trade programs and labelling schemes for goods produced without the use of child labour. At the political level, international labour standards are currently a major point of contention in trade negotiations, as rich countries demand that poor countries restrict the use of child labour.

Given the rising international pressure, one might think that developing countries have an incentive to eliminate child labour in haste. The data show, however, that child labour is still used widely throughout the developing world.1 In fact, in many countries child-labour rates are higher than they were in Britain and other industrialising European countries at the same stage of development. The apparent failure of international activism to curtail child labour raises the question of whether external pressure may be counterproductive.

Trade sanctions and poverty

Indeed, a number of economists have voiced concern about the impact of international policy interventions on poor families that are affected by child labour. They argue that measures such as consumer boycotts or the enforcement of labour standards via trade sanctions reduce the export earnings of developing countries, and in turn, the incomes of families where either adults or children work in the export industry.

This point is important because one root cause of child labour is poverty – families with working children tend to be poor and often send some children to work in order to afford schooling for at least one or two of their children. If their income falls because of trade sanctions, these families may be forced to rely even more on child labour to make ends meet. So even if international action succeeds in moving children out of export industries, more children may end up working (Basu and Zarghamee 2008, Edmonds 2008).

Trade sanctions and domestic political reform

Despite the connection between poverty and child labour, international measures could still work in the long term if they triggered political changes. The examples of Britain and other industrialising European nations in the nineteenth century show that the ultimate solution to the child-labour problem lies in domestic political action. These countries eradicated child labour by imposing and strictly enforcing policies such as minimum-age laws for employment and compulsory schooling. The key question therefore is: does international pressure on developing countries through trade sanctions or consumer boycotts make it more, or less, likely that these countries adopt comprehensive child-labour regulations on their own?

At first sight, it may appear that external pressure can nudge developing countries towards erasing child labour entirely. After all, trade sanctions and consumer boycotts reduce the earning opportunities of working children, making child labour a lesser income source for families. In this way, these policies might weaken domestic opposition to a complete ban on child labour or strictly enforced compulsory schooling.

In recent research (Doepke and Zilibotti 2009), we show that this intuition, however plausible, is likely wrong. We find that external pressure tends to lower domestic support for child-labour regulation and may contribute to the persistence of the child labour problem in developing countries.

Who gains from child-labour regulation?

To assess how external pressure affects the likelihood of political reform, we need to know how laws such as minimum-age rules for working children and compulsory schooling came to be passed in the first place. In earlier work (Doepke and Zilibotti 2005), we looked at the history of child labour regulation in England and other industrialising countries in the nineteenth century.

The most important group pressuring for reform in these countries were labour unions representing unskilled workers. These workers were competing with children in the labour market and expected their wages to rise if child labour was outlawed. Pressure groups with a humanitarian motivation also had some role to play, but unions were crucial to the reform – particularly in the late nineteenth century, when child-labour regulation became universal and compulsory schooling was introduced.

Applying these findings to international interventions, we need to determine whether poor, unskilled workers in developing countries favour a child-labour ban once sanctions or boycotts are in place.

Displacing children into informal employment reduces pressure for reform

In our analysis, we find that international interventions weaken domestic support for child-labour restrictions because they reduce competition between children and unskilled adult workers in the labour market. Unskilled workers then have less incentive to push for child-labour regulation.

When effective, trade sanctions or consumer boycotts move child workers from formal employment in the export sector to informal production, often in family-based agriculture. In the export sector, particularly in factories, children and adults perform similar tasks and therefore compete directly for jobs. In the informal sector, children and adults usually have different work responsibilities.

For example, on family farms children often specialise in tasks such as tending small animals, allowing adults to work in areas where they are most productive. Once adult and child labour become complementary in this way, restrictions on child labour no longer raise adult wages, which removes unskilled workers’ (and their unions’) incentives for supporting child-labour regulation.

The effects of international interventions on developing countries today stand in sharp contrast to the situation in which child-labour laws were passed in Western Europe in the nineteenth century. In Europe, comprehensive child-labour restrictions were adopted precisely when children were moving from the family farm and workshop into formal employment in mills, mines, and factories, where they worked alongside adults. It was this direct competition between adult workers and children that motivated unions to oppose child labour.

International interventions in developing countries today shift working children instead from formal employment back to the informal sector, undermining prospects for political reform. Thus, international policies aimed at reducing child labour may achieve the opposite of their intended effect.

Reevaluating policy options for the international community

Our findings question the effectiveness of current international pressure tactics, such as consumer boycotts or imposing international labour standards, in reducing child labour in the long term. Since such policies also carry short-term costs for developing countries, the rationale for their use should be reconsidered.

The international community still can, and should, help address the child-labour problem in developing countries. We are critical of interventions that work through restricting trade. Such policies have the potential to displace working children into informal employment, with negative repercussions for the prospects for future political reform. A more promising alternative would be policies that reward parents for choosing education over child labour for their children (a successful example of this sort is the PROGRESA program in Mexico). Such policies reduce economic dependence on child labour without inducing detrimental displacement effects. Likewise, policies that create incentives for developing countries (e.g., through conditional aid) to restrict child labour anywhere in the economy (rather than just in the export sector) would be useful, although these may be difficult to enforce.

In addition, our earlier work (Doepke and Zilibotti 2005) documents a link between fertility and attitudes towards child labour.2 In countries where child labour is unrestricted, parents tend to have many children in order to maximise child-labour income. High fertility, in turn, implies that families become economically dependent on child labour and unable to afford schooling for their children. Such families have little to gain from child labour restrictions, a fact that accounts for the low political support for reform and persistently high child-labour rates. From this perspective, policies discouraging high fertility or encouraging family planning may also increase the future support for local regulation of child labour. At the same time, social policies targeting poor families that already have many children may be necessary to mitigate the economic effects of child labour laws on these families.


1 According to the International Labour Organisation, there were 218 million child labourers worldwide in 2006.

2 Indeed, there is a strong empirical correlation between fertility and the incidence of child labour across countries at a similar stage of development.


Basu, Kaushik, and Homa Zarghamee (2008), “Is Product Boycott a Good Idea for Controlling Child Labor? A Theoretical Investigation.” forthcoming, Journal of Development Economics.

Doepke, Matthias, and Fabrizio Zilibotti (2005), “The Macroeconomics of Child Labor Regulation.” American Economic Review 95 (5): 1492–524.

Doepke, Matthias, and Fabrizio Zilibotti (2009), “Do International Labor Standards Contribute to the Persistence of the Child Labor Problem?” NBER Working Paper 15050.

Edmonds, Eric V. 2008. “Child Labor.” Handbook of Development Economics, edited by T. Paul Schultz and John Strauss, Volume 4. Amsterdam: North Holland.

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