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Ethical Arguments on Child Labour

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The ethical arguments concerning organizations using suppliers which employ children.

For the time being, the number of child labourers exceeds 250 million worldwide. In fact, child labour is defined by the International Labour Organization (2008) as types of work performed by children under 18. In most cases, however, child labour assumes full-time work done by children under the age of 15 that assumes health hazards and virtually excludes obtaining education. The entire situation is worsened by the fact that many suppliers hiring children blatantly disregard international UN conventions on children rights as well as the provisions of applicable national legislations. By ignoring national laws that prohibit child labour under the age of 14, the contracted factories and local suppliers in poor countries actively apply children aged 11-14 to work in sweatshops to manufacture items for such brand names as Primark, Gap, Nike, Wal-mart, Target, Hanes etc for mere 6.5 c. per item (Gorgemans, n.d).

The internationally acclaimed clothing retailers conventionally build up their global businesses on contracting factories and suppliers in the developing countries. Therein, local employers apply unethical and illegal practices to the workforce while benefiting the abovementioned global retailers. For a number of times, these organizations were reported as such that are exploiting child labour disregarding set ethical norms and legal regulations. In all cases, the traditional response from the corporate management is limited to the lack of awareness of such unfair instances and injustice applications. This indicates that despite the impacts of pressure groups and advocacy organizations these global brands are unwilling to bear either ethical or legal responsibility for their dishonest employment practices. Fortunately, owing to the enormous efforts of various international pressure groups, the companies like these have recently taken adequate measures to cease unethical applications, particularly those associated with child labour (Gorgemans, n.d).

By placing such enforcements, pressure organizations invaluably contribute to the expansion of civil society based on ethical principles of respect, justice and human right priority. In such a way, various pressure groups, media, and youth rights groups are fighting against dishonest companies and their suppliers to protect children from illegal exploitation. Fact is, it is almost impossible to reveal the truth since suppliers are operating in the areas that are difficult to monitor, which enables the latter to conspire their unethical and illegal practices. Whenever the unethical scandals addressing child labour exploitation are revealed, the corporate managers tend to deny their awareness of such illegal happenings allowed in the contracted factories or suppliers. For example, Primark have been a subject to BBC news reports after the detection of child labour use in the clothing manufacturing, which made the company to conduct a follow-up investigation on their suppliers. In most cases, therefore, pressure groups cannot prove the rightness of their claims due to the insufficiency of actual evidence, and therefore lose lawsuits. This provokes the situation where nobody is ethically responsible, while millions of unprotected child labourers are daily exploited worldwide. Even the US boycotting of the exports of Nepalese carpets manufactured by children in early 90’s did not provide adequate solution to the child labour problem since this measure caused 7,000 Nepalese children taking up prostitution (UNICEF, 2008).

Ostensibly, the global problem of child labour is immense and in most instances falls beyond any reasonable ethical or legal control of the responsible authorities. Considering this, it is a common knowledge that legal regulations have always been based on the ethical principles reflecting social morale. Therefore, primarily it is a question of ones ethics and morale to intentionally accept and apply child labour for low pay and in appalling conditions. Nevertheless, in practical terms it seems that many suppliers actually do not mind unethical and illegal exploitation of child labour solely caring about enlarging their profits, expanding consumer markets and winning competitive advantages owing to cheap workforce that consists of ethically and legally unprotected children from Mali, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Liberia, Pakistan and many other destinations worldwide. To this end, according to International Labour Organization and the United Nations, the child labour is considered exploitative (UN General Assembly, 1989).

Nonetheless, nearly half of all children labourers are traditionally engaged in the agricultural sector, though during the last two decades child labour has been actively applied by multinational corporations (Nike, GAP etc) and smaller companies in manufacturing as the effective means to save on this virtually costless and easily operative workforce. Largely, the underdeveloped socio-economic situation in many world countries provokes parents to agree to their children exploiting in hazardous works that involve physical tensions and the use of complicated machinery and devices difficult to operate. Consequently, the reasons of child labour in poor countries are purely economic driven by poverty concerns, and for the time being there is no single international convention that is declaring child labour illegal (Hindman and Smith, 1999).

The main ethical issue in due respect is that under the umbrella of world renowned brands, local suppliers are unethically applying child labour considering house-to-house poverty and the devastating domestic conditions in Africa and East Asia wherein most families often regard their offspring as the sole source of income (Hindman and Smith, 1999). Considering this, it is rather difficult to say where the issue of ethics should begin. Hence, the analysis of relevant theoretical approaches is necessary to fully comprehend the seriousness of the issue. In essence, ethical theories are based on the core foundations, i.e. principles predetermining common goals intended to be achieved by every ethical theory, including but not limited to: least harm, beneficence, justice, and autonomy (Ridley, 1998; Penslar, 1995). In fact the exploitation of child labour does not comply with either of the abovementioned ethical principles. Neither does it produce a positive effect on children in accordance with the ethical principle of beneficence. According to the ethical principle of least harm, it is apparent that while companies are managing their short-term exporting and business concerns at the cost of the developing world, they are crippling millions of children by depriving them of the right for better future. In such a way employers show total disrespect for children autonomy, including their concerns, preferences and actual motivations (Hindman and Smith, 1999). Finally, child labour is a true example of injustice practice which assumes overall adverse affects to child labourers and economy on the whole. This indicates that the global economy will continue to shrink since the gap between rich and poor is rapidly expanding, and hardly any organization needs uneducated and/or unhealthy employees either today or in the future.

The application of ethical theories in case of child abuse practices is a rather delicate issue which necessitates addressing previous experiences of child labour applications by commodity suppliers. While illegally exploiting child labour, the suppliers preliminarily trespass the deontological theory and do so intentionally for the sake of companies’ profits (Ridley, 1998; Penslar, 1995).

For instance, since 1990s the international producer of sportswear Nike has been continually criticized by various right protection and activist groups (e.g. The International Labor Rights Fund; Vietnam Labour Watch etc) and media (e.g. BBC; Australian Channel 7 News etc) for exploiting forced labour practices, including women and child labour in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China, Cambodia, and Mexico. In various contracted factories (e.g. in Vietnam, 1996), Nike was reported to violate overtime laws and minimum wage requirements. At that, the company provided employees with indecent working conditions while exploiting cheap overseas workforce within free trade zones to manufacture their commodities (Harsono, 1996). Worse than that, in the course of 1990s, Nike followed the unethical and unsanctioned practice of child labour exploitation in Pakistan and Cambodia while contracting the domestic factories to manufacture footballs. Even now, despite numerous anti-sweatshop (e.g. United Students against Sweatshops) and anti-globalization campaigns, Nike continue to exploit child labour in the areas wherein monitoring or legal regulations are inadequate, which has ensured the company unprecedented profits over the last decade (Boggan, 2001). Considering such unethical and illegal practices, it is obvious that Nile is also breaching the ethical principles of utilitarianism, the rights ethical theory,the casuist ethical theory, the virtue ethical theory an/or their various combinations considering the circumstances. Since the law should be given the highest priority within the rights theory, Nike’s practices should be regarded both unethical and illegal (Boggan, 2001; Harsono, 1996).

The similar unethical applications have been reported to be used by Gap. In May 2006, Gap’s supplier in Jordan known as Western, applied unpaid overtime and excessive child labour, and other unethical practices. In 2007, Gap’s Indian factories contracted by Gap were reported to vastly apply child labour. The majority of claims from the pressure organizations concerned unsafe working conditions, unpaid off the clock hours, forced abortion policies, which made the company to reconsider its employment practices. At that, feeling ethical and moral liability before the workforce, the Gap has been praised by advocacy and pressure groups (Verite, Labour behind the Label, Social Accountability International etc) for managing to resolve unethical abuses of employees’ rights in accordance with the internally applied global social accountability standard assuming decent working conditions SA8000. To this end, the company does not employ children under 14 anymore, provides regular and transparent wage payment, and prohibits any physical or moral abuse on its contracted factories (Guardian 2007). Considering this, in 2007 the company has become a genuine example of ethical practices application rewarded by the national industry media (e.g. Ethisphere Magazine; CRO Magazine; Business Ethics Magazine etc).

The aforesaid examples indicate that the business companies operating in the global competitive environment should consider ethical principles in addition to caring about profit-making. For this purpose, multinational companies establish internal codes of ethics and release social responsibility reports on annual basis to underline their ethical responsibility before general public and relevant communities (Hindman and Smith, 1999). Nonetheless, as is seen, there are numerous conflicts between the theoretically-declared ethical norms and empirical applications which confront each other. To this end, in the US child labour is banned by law as well as the policies of the US firms, whereas child labour is allowed in Pakistan and inspires domestic benefits therein. Thus, depending on the respective cultural and ethical norms, child labour is differently perceived in various countries (Hall, n.d.).

At that, ethical theories should be applied to provide moral reasoning while responding to conflict situations like child exploitation. Utilitarianism ethical theory intends to maximize happiness in line with the limits of moral choice, whereas the deontological method seeks moral rules to choose the most relevant one to determine the moral action to be taken. In due sense, the utilitarian method is in favour of child labour since due to the gaining of extra income children maximize their own happiness as well as the delight of their parents who know that labour saves their children from street crime and/or prostitution. Conversely, the deontological method indicates that the practice of child labour violates moral norms and therefore child labour would need an alternative solution. For example, there are companies promoting educational programs for children by paying their families for being able to use their labour since they are 14 years old. This approach seems well-balanced, however, from the ethical perspective, the current dilemma indicate the non-coincidence of cultural relativism and ethical universalism (Adler, n.d).

The discussed issue is currently unsolved considering the ethical viewpoint under which the importance of ethical and moral norms and values differs from culture to culture, and so there is no way to the application of universal norms able to guide moral choices. Human rights are based on moral and ethical norms; however fail to serve as a universal panacea to solve many problems concerning the protection of individual freedom. Therefore the universal formalization and legalization of child labour would require enormous contribution to be made by the international community, civil society and active pressure groups to solve the issue on the global agenda. To be genuinely effective ethical theory should be backed up by firm action and sustainable degree of individual responsibility for using child labour (Ridley, 1998; Penslar, 1995).

Ethical theories based on relevant principles should be widely applied as the effective decision-making tools, though only their relevant combination seems most effective while coping with the child labour dilemma. Utilitarian ethics grounded on the casuistic theory may be used to objectively compare different viewpoints on child labour issue and offer the most appropriate choice of action. Ethical theories in various combinations help to analyze and manage critical situations in unbiased and constructive manner to come with the most correct solution from the ethical perspective. Thus, the abovementioned ethical theories can serve as a reliable framework to settle international child labour issues in the foreseeable future (Ridley, 1998; Penslar, 1995).

List of References

Adler, N. n.d., International Dimensions of Organization Behaviour, Canada Southwestern pp. 64-66.

Boggan, S. 2001, ‘Nike Admits to Mistakes over Child Labor’, [Online] Available at:


Gorgemans, A. n.d., ‘Addressing Child Labor: An Industry Approach’, [Online] Available at:


Guardian 2007, ‘Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image’, [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/oct/28/ethicalbusiness.india

Hall, E. n.d., Understanding Cultural Differences pp. 48-50.

Harsono, A. 1996, ‘Nike Accused of Slave Child Labor’, [Online] Available at:http://www.albionmonitor.com/9606a/nikelabor.html

Hindman, H., Smith, C. 1999, Cross-Cultural Ethics and the Child Labor Problem, Journal of Business Ethics, Volume 19, Number 1 / March, 1999

Penslar, R. 1995. Research Ethics: Cases and Materials. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ridley, A. 1998, Beginning Bioethics. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

UN General Assembly “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession byGeneral Assembly resolution 44/25of 20 November 1989 entry into force 2 September 1990, in accordance with article 49

UNICEF, 2008 ‘Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse’, [Online] Available at: http://www.unicef.org/protection/index_childlabour.html

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