Child labor has been a global problem for decades. Is the United States simultaneously combating the rates of child labor in trade? Can India be an example that increased trade with developing nations increases global human rights? Or should we look to China, and scale back on our international dependencies?
In 2020 alone, the United States was the number one economy in the world in terms of GDP, number two in total exports, and number one in total imports. This is $1.34T in exports and $2.24T in imports. As one of the biggest economic powers, how would the absence from the world economic stage affect labor policy in other countries?
The ILO(International Labor Organization) is responsible for the collective agreements between countries regarding labor standards. With 187 member states, the ILO has eight treaties they consider to be Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which covers, “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation”, according to the ILO. Despite being members of ILO, countries do not have to enter into treaties if they do not want to, and when it comes to the recommendations under ILO, violations do not have serious consequences, as they are non-binding. For example, India is a member of ILO, however, they have chosen to only ratify six out of the eight Fundamental Conventions, and the United States has only entered into two out of the eight.
Although, not being a part of these treaties does not exactly mean the United States is abusing children for labor; the U.S. State Department has its own labor regulations along with the Department of Labor. Yet, this doesn’t exactly apply to all other countries that do not have all eight ratified. In third world countries, the governments are less worried about the people rather than their power. India may have more of the Foundation Treaties ratified, however, they are considered a developing country, with 21% of their population living off less than $2 a day, high infant mortality, and extreme gender disparities. According to the ILO, in 2015 there were around 12.9 million Indian children engaged in work between the ages of seven to seventeen years old.
How could the United States influence labor policy? If the United States was considering a trade partner for grain, and the country they were considering just so happened to rely on child labor, the United States could strategically avoid dealing with a country that has abusive labor practices, causing them to miss out. However, there may be a problem here. A country like China, might not want to enter into agreements where labor standards are enforced because labor is a cost of production. A country like China would have the ability to avoid trade agreements that require them to drive up their costs of production, however, a country like India would benefit from a strategic trade agreement, specifically one regarding industrial technology.
The United States’ influence on child labor can actually be seen in the most recent decade. As of 2013 data, the United States had a total of $63.7B in imports and exports with India, however, as of 2013 India had not ratified two of the Fundamental conventions including C182 – Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), and C138 – Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), both protections regarding Child Labor and underage workers. In 2017 India adapted two more of the Fundamental treaties of the ILO. Since then, trade with the United States went from $63.7B to $149B as of 2021, and a 2018 study on child labor showed that 1.4% of India’s population was in child labor, compared to the 90.7% who were enrolled in school. Much of the forced child labor now only exists in sexual trafficking, which has not been correlated to trade with other countries.
“The U.S.-India partnership is founded on a shared commitment to freedom, democratic principles, equal treatment of all citizens, human rights, and the rule of law. The United States and India have shared interests in promoting global security, stability, and economic prosperity through trade, investment, and connectivity” (U.S. State Department)
The idea that the United States is not responsible for the citizens of India for example, is something that can be argued. However, when entering into trade agreements for certain goods and services, does the United States become a facilitator in those Human Rights violations? Yes. The United States itself has laws depicting the required labor standards, along with a Price Floor on the cost of labor: A federal minimum wage. However, the United States being the strong economic power that it is, has the ability and the option to choose not to enter into trade agreements when it violates human rights, no matter how beneficial the agreement can be, however, consciously making the decision to trade with a country that violates human rights, requires the governing body to hold economic convictions over human rights, simultaneously violating them for economic profit.
There has been a large push in recent years by conservatives in the United States, to become more economically independent. This push includes the active fight to get big companies back on American soil. As much as this can be seen as an extreme sense of nationalism, it has economic advantages, which can be argued are better for the United States, rather worrying about labor laws in a foreign country.
There is also an ethical plea in the argument on the opposite end: big businesses that thrive in America, often manufacture or get resources from countries without labor protections in order to cut their labor costs as well. So wouldn’t less dependency help labor as well? Not necessarily. Businesses in America manufacturing in other countries, has little to do with the WTO(World Trade Organization), it is the company’s prerogative to manufacture using child labor. What would actually help child laborers? ILO ratification in third world countries, which can be promoted by the United State’s increased and aligned interest in lowering child labor, as seen in evidence with India since 2017.
After analyzing the economic outcomes from trade with India, it can be said that decreasing trade, and overall promoting less globalization of ideals and morals, would harm child laborers more. The ability to influence foreign policy economically is one the United States should be taking advantage of in the future.
This is a great piece, and there are so many moving parts to a question like this, so good on you for trying to tackle it. A lot of this is sort of philosophical – is it our duty to look out for the people of other countries/parts of the world? Many would say yes, but many would also say no. There is also the question of whether the global north could even ever have become as successful as it has without the exploitation of labor and resources from the global south – it is possible that without another group/country to exploit, we simply cannot sustain the levels of economic gain and consumption which we currently enjoy. It will be interesting to see how this issue develops over time, as the population becomes more interested in ethical and sustainable consumption.