The International Labor Organization (ILO) recently estimated that there are currently 12.5 million children working in Latin America (9.5 million of which work in activities considered “dangerous”). Recently, representatives of 25 Latin American countries signed an agreement and committed themselves to eliminate child labor by 2020.
I have never been a big fan of this type of rhetoric. Before “fighting” child labor and commiting ourselves to eliminate it, we should ask why is that child labor happens in the first place. Child labor is only the symptom of a deeper problem. In the overwellmingly majority of cases, children work because they don’t have other options. Children and their families depend crucially on the income they earn. While I wish that children wouldn’t have to work if they didn’t want to, I also recognize that if they are not allowed to, these children and their families will probably be in even more precarious situations. Thus, “eliminating” child labor because we don’t want to see kids working won’t solve the underlying problem of poverty that forced those kids to work. By formally forbidding child labor (like in Bolivia), we don’t help to solve the sources of the problem and make things even worse by limiting their possibilities.
Most children wouldn’t have to work if they parents did and could sustain the family’s needs. That is where the problem resides and the efforts should concentrate. But that is, of course, a bigger and more difficult problem to solve. It is always very tempting, therefore, to attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself.