When Rights Become Wrongs


Some presumptive rights are in fact making things worse for people. A “right not to be exploited” can condemn the potential victims of exploitation to other kinds of victimhood that are even harder to bear than exploitation. Take for example some kinds of sweatshop laborers and child laborers. Mutually beneficial exploitation is real, and, while it’s definitely immoral it may still be better than the status quo ante. If children aren’t allowed to work or sweatshops are closed under pressure then people’s lives may well turn for the worse. More poverty or worse labor conditions – e.g. prostitution or slavery – can be their lot.

Something similar is the case for the so-called right to cultural identity. This right may very well force some members of cultural communities to endure cultural practices that are harmful to their individual rights, all in the name of preserving the cultural identity of the group. Another example: the “right to land” is often invoked in certain developing countries and is supposed to be a means to undo the unjust distribution of land ownings following a history of white colonialism. Here as well we see that a right may become a wrong: while it may undo one injustice of distribution it creates other injustices (e.g. poverty resulting from ineffective production due to losses of economies of scale and of knowhow).

One last example: immigration restrictions are sometimes justified by the claim that would-be immigrants have a right to flourish in their countries of origin. People don’t want to migrate unless they’re forced by circumstances, it is said. Relaxation of immigration laws is then supposedly a second best option compared to solving the problems in origin countries that create the push for immigration in the first place. So instead of allowing people to migrate we should try to protect their rights where they now live. Needless to say that this approach makes those would-be migrants worse off, and probably not only in the short run. Looser immigration laws have immediate benefits for the migrants, but they can also improve the rights situation in their home countries, for example through remittances and cultural exchange.

Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (9): Child Labor Legislation

According to a famous model by Kaushik Basu, if governments ban child labor but fail to enforce those bans – governments in countries where child labor is prevalent often have weak law enforcement in general – then they create the wrong incentives for employers and for the families of child laborers. Employers react by continuing the practice of child labor because they can often get away with it, but at the same time they lower the wages of child workers because they except to get caught at some point and be fined. They anticipate and compensate these fines by lowering wages. (Children usually don’t have the power to resist wage reductions). The families of the children in turn react by forcing more of their children to work as a way to compensate for the lost income. There’s some evidence here that this effect does indeed occur.

Perhaps we should kick the habit of relying only and automatically on legislation in order to enforce human rights. This may be a good strategy in countries that have well-functioning enforcement systems, but in developing countries it may do more harm than good. (Perhaps this is a symptom of the much criticized shortsightedness of western international development efforts). After all, it’s not as if there aren’t any nonlegislative means to promote human rights.

Here‘s another example of human rights legislation that actually leads to diminished respect for human rights. More on the difficult relationship between human rights and the law is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (56): What’s Wrong With Exploitation?

There is no human right to be free from exploitation, but some rights prohibit practices that we normally call exploitative: child labor, unfair wages etc. However, what exactly is exploitation and what is it that makes it wrong? According to Hillel Steiner, exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged. Or, in other words, exploitation is the voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value.

Now, what exactly is this unfair price that causes the values of the exchanged things to be unequal? Again according to Steiner, the party transferring the good or service gets a an unfair price when that price is below what she could have had in a fair auction. That’s a convincing argument since you can hardly claim that a fair price is the intrinsic price of something. Nothing has an intrinsic price or value. It’s also convincing because it avoids the extreme and implausible free market position that all voluntarily agreed prices are fair.

I think that this model does indeed cover part of what we usually call exploitation. The voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value is a case of exploitation, but in my view the Steiner model doesn’t really capture the essence of exploitation. But let’s first examine what’s convincing about Steiner’s position:

  • It focuses on voluntary transfers. An involuntary exchange would be theft or slavery rather than exploitation. And we want to keep these concepts separate. Hence we limit exploitation to voluntary exchanges. Involuntary exchanges like theft or slavery are not exploitation. They are different from exploitation even if, like exploitation, an unfair price is involved. (Leaving a $10 dollar bill after having stolen an expensive car is still theft; paying my slave with meals and housing still makes her a slave). And they are, a fortiori, different from exploitation if the price is fair. (Paying my slave a fair wage still makes her a slave. If I employ someone against her will, I’m enslaving her, even if I pay her a wage, fair or unfair. Leaving a check for $50,000 after having stolen a car still makes it theft. But neither slavery nor theft are exploitation).
  • It focuses on relationships where exchanges of goods or services occur. If we’re dealing with relationships where no such exchanges are involved, it’s counterintuitive to talk about exploitation. Take a relationship where no goods or services are exchanged, but where nevertheless some harm is done. The harm done is then better labeled as oppression, abuse, discrimination, rights violations etc., depending on what actually happens. It’s not because there is harm that there is necessarily also exploitation.
  • It focuses on unfairness, specifically unfairness of the price of the goods or services exchanged. That’s coherent with the way we usually talk about exploitation, namely as a case of unfairness or injustice.

In Steiner’s model, these are the three necessary conditions that have to be jointly fulfilled in order to have a case of exploitation. And indeed, the model covers many cases which we normally call exploitative, such as unfair wages, some commodity markets where poor farmers sell their goods at very low prices compared to what they fetch later in the supply chain, child labor etc. However, there’s something missing from the model. It doesn’t describe exploitation in a sufficiently precise way. I’ll argue that there’s a fourth necessary condition missing.

What if someone gets a price that’s merely 20% below the fair price? We wouldn’t necessarily call that exploitation. What about a billionaire not getting a fair price for one of his goods? We don’t call that exploitation either (yet Steiner does; he has to, given his limited model). What about someone not very interested in getting a fair price? Is she exploited?

These questions suggest that the following condition is missing: exploitation only occurs when the party in the exchange that doesn’t get a fair price is already, before the exchange takes place, in a disadvantaged position. Take the example of a family selling its house for an unfair price. Maybe the price is just a tiny bit below the fair price. Maybe the family is very wealthy (the house being just one of many in their possession). Or maybe the family doesn’t care about a fair price (and has decided to go and live in the African jungle and doesn’t need the money). In none of these cases is the sale exploitative.

But maybe the motive for the sale of the house is debt coverage. The urgent need to repay some debts has convinced the family that the best thing to do is to sell the house, even if the price they can get under the circumstances is less than fair. The three elements of Steiner’s model are still present: it’s a voluntary exchange for an unfair price. It’s voluntary since no one is forcing the family to sell and there are some other options left (e.g. sending the kids to public school). Still, the family has decided that selling at an unfair price is better than doing nothing or than any of the other available options. But the exchange is only exploitative if the family comes into the exchange from a disadvantaged position and if someone else takes advantage of – or exploits – their disadvantaged position. And it’s because of this disadvantage that they can’t manage to get a fair price: their disadvantage convinces buyers that they can make a “good deal” since the sellers are in no position to insist on a fair price.

The exploitative sale does make the family better off, and it’s likely that exploitation always makes both parties better off. That could be a fifth necessary condition. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceptualize exploitation where one party is worse off after the exchange; such cases are more likely to be similar to theft, slavery, abuse, oppression etc. and therefore different from exploitation.

A similar example is the case of workers in poor countries accepting to sell their goods or labor power at very low prices (for example to a multinational company). These prices are unfair because the people happen to live in a poor country, which means that they are not able to sell their goods or labor power in a fair auction with different companies bidding. It’s an exchange, and a voluntary one. However, it’s only exploitation because the sellers are in a disadvantaged position, similar to the people selling their house at an unfair price in order to cover their debts, and because this position makes the price unfair and makes the fair auction impossible.

Let’s take a third example that features regularly in writings about exploitation: there’s a sudden blizzard and people scramble to the only hardware shop in town to buy shovels. The owner of the shop reacts in a typical way and decides to charge three times the normal price for the shovels. Is he exploiting his fellow townspeople? No. The price is not even unfair because in an auction, that’s probably the price that people would accept to pay. And in reality as well they do probably accept to pay it. If you want to call this exploitation, all supply and demand pricing is exploitation.

Once you accept all this, you will agree that some of the common definitions of exploitation are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Exploitation can’t simply be the unfair use of others for your own benefit. That would cover slavery, theft and other relationships that are morally wrong but not exploitative. And exploitation can’t simply mean taking unfair advantage of someone, because we don’t want to call taking advantage of a millionaire a case of exploitation.

Are there some types of voluntary exchange that are inherently exploitative, whatever the price, fair or unfair? For example organ sales, or sex work? No, such transactions are exploitative only when the price is unfair and when the further condition of disadvantaged starting positions is also met (people who decide to sell their organs or their sexual services will often be in disadvantaged starting positions, but the price is often not unfair). Of course, it’s not because these exchanges are not exploitative that they can’t be immoral for other reasons (e.g instrumentalization).

This account of exploitation is different from the well-known Marxist account. According to Marxism, workers are exploited because they are forced into employment status (given that they themselves don’t have any means of production and that the capitalists have monopolized those means). Hence, the Marxist notion of exploitation collapses into the notion of slavery, something which I want to avoid.

More on exploitation is here and here.

Human Rights Promotion (3): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Take for instance capital punishment. Human rights defenders normally reject it. And indeed, if you use your head and look at the data, and if you refine your moral compass, you can’t possibly reach any other conclusion. And yet, most of us, even the most ardent rights defenders, know cases in which they would like to see people die – perhaps even administer the lethal drug themselves. Emotions are hard to reason with. We swallow the logic of human rights, the data and the moral precepts, and yet in doing so they leave a bad taste in our mouths.

There are other cases. Take child labor. We know that it’s detrimental to a child’s education and hence her future prosperity, intellectual development and flourishing. It’s probably also harmful to her health. And yet, we accept it in certain cases because the alternative is even worse. In some place, there may be no education provision worthy of the name, and forcing a child away from work may aggravate the poverty of her family without doing much for the child’s education. Acquiescing in a child’s rights violations is better for her rights than doing nothing.

The same is true with sweatshop labor or the exploitation of poor migrants:

In Lant Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. (source)

In all these cases we’re faced with awful situations, but the alternatives are even worse; or, better, the realistic alternatives. If we could eliminate poverty overnight, open our borders, provide decent education and labor standards to all, and inject a conscience in all employers, we wouldn’t need to swallow dirt and leave a bad taste. But we can’t, not now at least.

Another example is the veil. We should allow Muslim women to dress modestly because we want to respect freedom of religion and because we don’t want to treat those women as lesser human beings who don’t have the agency to stand up against patriarchy and who need to be liberated by us enlightened folk. And yet, at the same time we know that we may be endorsing and promoting a symbol of oppression and thereby oppression itself. We also know that there are women who are forced to hide themselves, but we don’t know which. And finally, we know that dressing modestly renders some activities difficult, and that women as a result may not be able to fully develop themselves. And yet we swallow, because the alternative – forcing all veiled women to uncover – would be worse.

Economic Human Rights (33): Sweatshops

No one’s in favor of sweatshops in developing countries (or elsewhere for that matter). But that doesn’t mean you have to believe that campaigning against them is a good thing. It’s quite possible to simultaneously believe that something is bad and that its disappearance would make things even worse. Generally, people work in the disgusting circumstances of a sweatshop because the alternative is even worse. People tend to select the occupation that’s least harmful and most profitable for them.

So even though sweatshops do indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations – degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures, abuse, exploitation (including sexual exploitation) and child labor – they may be better than the alternatives – a fine world we live in – and the fact that most sweatshop workers aren’t coerced by their employers indicates that this is the case.

Sweatshops insult our western sense of justice because we have a relatively low threshold for injustice. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many people in the Third World would be forced into subsistence farming, scavenging of garbage dumps, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives may offer lower incomes and worse conditions. Campaigning against sweatshops can lead to their closure and force people into the even less appealing alternatives.

That’s why I argue against campaigns and boycotts. However, campaigns don’t have to lead to the closure of sweatshops and loss of jobs, and can even make things better – go figure:

We find that anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases for targeted enterprises. We also examine whether higher wages led these firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere. The results suggest that there were some costs in terms of reduced investment, falling profits, and increased probability of closure for smaller plants, but we fail to find significant effects on employment. (source, source)

A successful multinational may be profitable enough to be able to afford wage increases [as a response to campaigns], and may prefer to take wage increases on the chin rather than move its business around. (source)

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.


Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

The utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived.

Economic Human Rights (21): Sweatshops

Sweatshops don’t have a very good reputation. They impose degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, and they expose workers to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures. In many cases, the workers are young women who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – including sexual exploitation – by their bosses. On top of that, many sweatshops violate child labor laws. Hence, sweatshops have been called a form of modern slavery, and not without reason. They indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations.

Most, but not all, sweatshops are situated in the third world countries, where labor regulations are lax, salaries low and trade unions not very powerful. Third world countries also don’t have a high level of technology intensity in industrial production, making it profitable to employ manual labor. Western companies often outsource high technology factories in the West to low technology sweatshops in the South. In the West, sweatshops also exist, but mostly in the illegal economy.

However, many economists who can’t possibly be accused of heartlessness or indifference when it comes to the problem of global poverty, have defended them. There’s for example Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Nicholas D. Kristof. They argue that the alternatives in many countries are worse. Sweatshops may insult our western sense of justice, but that’s because our economies offer in general much higher standards of work. In third world countries, sweatshops are a step forward for many people. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many of them would be forced into subsistence farming, garbage scavenging, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives offer lower incomes and worse conditions.

Furthermore, many of the young women working in sweatshops see their employment as a way out of gender discrimination. It’s a form of liberation from the oppressive local and traditional systems in their rural hometowns. They move to larger industrial towns, earn a living, have their own rooms, and as a result they can escape an early (and often arranged) marriage and early motherhood. And without the burden of an early marriage and motherhood, they can develop their education.

Developing countries starting their manufacturing sectors in the form of sweatshops, can expect improvements elsewhere in their economy:

The growth of manufacturing has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise. Paul Krugman

So it’s probably not a good idea to try and abolish sweatshops, or to boycott products produced in sweatshops. We may do more harm than good when we force people out of sweatshops and into other types of employment. What we have to do, however, is to promote better labor standards and working conditions in existing sweatshops, and do so realistically. Demanding immediate implementation of western standards is silly, given the level of development of third world economies, and would result in the end of sweatshops. But western companies that use or trade with sweatshops can be pressured to do something about the worst aspects of sweatshop labor.

The Causes of Poverty (9): Poverty Traps

A poverty trap occurs when poverty has effects which act as causes of poverty, creating a vicious circle in which poverty engenders more poverty, a circle of cumulative causation leading to a downward spiral of ever more extreme poverty.

Poverty traps or poverty circles can be of different kinds: individual, social, national, international…

1. Individual poverty traps

A poverty trap can be limited to the purely individual: for example, a person being discouraged by his or her situation or misfortune, and thereby sinking deeper into misfortune because of inactivity.

2. Regional poverty traps

The poverty trap may also have a regional aspect: some parts of the country or the population may be poor because they are isolated geographically from the rest of the population and the main centres of wealth and prosperity.

Profitable business opportunities may be few, and thus productive employment lacking, owing to poor transport and communication links with those centres. But the low level of economic activity in the isolated region means that transport services are inadequate and that improved transport infrastructure cannot be economically justified, thus perpetuating the isolation. (source)

3. Racial/ethnic poverty traps

The isolation may also be racial or ethnic. This may harm their self-esteem or their sense of responsibility for their own advancement. The responsibility for their fate is, not without reason, projected on others, but this can become a fetish creating passivity and hence more poverty.

4. Social poverty traps

Poor people, because they tend to be more often sick, hungry and weak, don’t manage to get well paid jobs or – if they are independent producers – tend to produce less. As a result, they have less money, less food, and limited access to health care. And because of this, they get even more hungry, weak or sick, and the circle starts again.

Another example: an individual is poor because his or her parents are poor; because of this, a good education becomes problematic – the children may have to work instead of attending school; without a good education the individual does not acquire the tools and capabilities to escape poverty, may succumb to the temptation of crime, and as a result sinks deeper into poverty.

5. National poverty traps

Low income leads to low savings; low savings lead to low investment; low investment leads to low productivity and low incomes. Poverty leads to environmental degradation, which in turn undermines the assets of the poor and exacerbates poverty. Poverty can lead to violence and conflict, and the associated destruction of physical, human, social and organizational capital in turn causes poverty to intensify. (source)

6. International poverty traps

A poor country may have to rely on its natural resources for its exports and hard currency. As a result, however, other and more stable sectors of the economy are neglected and the resource curse may set in, creating poverty and forcing the other sectors even more to the background.

Some countries may find that they are regionally isolated from the global economic centres, much like some social groups can be regionally isolated within a country (see above). Their import markets are too far away from the main exporters, or too difficult to reach because of the poverty of the country and the resulting lack of investments in infrastructure and transport facilities.

Needless to say that the different kinds of poverty traps can exacerbate each other, and thereby creating a “poverty trap of poverty traps”, a vicious circle in which different poverty traps reinforce each other. This sounds quite apocalyptic, but fortunately seems to be only a theoretical possibility because globally poverty is actually on the retreat, but only on average. Many countries, many social groups and many individuals are still terribly poor, and the poverty traps are one reason.

Economic Human Rights (14): Health

Health is a human rights issue in two respects. First, people have a right to health care and health insurance. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is more specific. Article 7 guarantees the rights to safe and healthy working conditions. Article 10 deals with child labor:

The employment of children in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law.

Article 12 states:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. 2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for: (a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child; (b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene; (c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; (d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

The second way in which health is a human rights issue is the fact that good health is a precondition for the enjoyment of all human rights. In this way, bad health is similar to poverty. You have to be healthy and without pain in order to be able to use freedom rights and political rights. A sick, suffering or toiling person is thrown back upon himself and unable to relate to the outside world, just as a person who concentrates exclusively on his or her body for pleasurable reasons. Intense bodily sensations of any kind – positive and negative – shut us off from the world, because they make it impossible to perceive anything except our own body. In other words, they make the use of our classical rights impossible or undesirable.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (6): The Behavior of Corporations

Private companies, especially companies engaging in international trade and multinational companies, have duties in the field of human rights. They can violate human rights or they can act positively to protect them.

  • They are obliged to respect human rights, just as individuals or states. They can create labor conditions that respect human rights (fair wages, no child labor etc.).
  • Multinational companies should not use the competition between workers (for example workers from different countries with different levels of wages or different labor conditions) to force down wages or loosen labor regulations.
  • Multinational companies can be an example to local companies in the way they treat workers, and they can require that local companies that co-operate with them respect certain rules, such as the rules regarding labor conditions.
  • Also non-multi-national companies that engage in international trade can require that their suppliers respect human rights. They can always threaten to go to another supplier.
  • Companies have the technology, the know-how and the money that some governments need; hence they have the means to convince these governments to respect human rights.
  • It is in the interest of companies that countries respect human rights and the principles of democracy. They need the rule of law (which is a human right), predictability, law enforcement, stability, an effective judiciary etc. It is also in their interest that the local population can afford to buy their products or services. So they may even be able to promote economic rights.

Companies that violate rights, that trade with dictatorships or with other companies that do not respect human rights, become more and more sensitive to the negative consequences of their choices. Their image and profits can suffer. Their good name is economically more interesting than rights violations, certainly in the long term. Public opinion can turn against them and consumers can stop buying their products or services.

Banks and arms producing companies have a particular responsibility. Banks could monitor and possibly even freeze the assets of dictators. Arms companies should avoid delivering arms to dictators.

Children’s Rights (2): Child Labor

Child labor not only keeps children from attending school. It often harms them physically and mentally. It is therefore a double problem from the point of view of the human rights of children.

  1. It denies them the education that they need for the exercise of and struggle for their human rights. Without education the freedom of thought and opinion becomes rather academic since thought and opinion requires a certain level of education. Political participation without literacy is also quite difficult. Without education people will find it difficult to struggle against rights violations and to find meaningful work when they are adults. So child labor can have lifetime consequences for human rights.
  2. The conditions in which children have to work often lead directly to violations of their rights, such as the right to good health. Moreover the kinds of jobs children have to do are often extremely stultifying, creating feelings of insignificance and hopelessness, with disastrous consequences for their personality and future development.

Legal aspects

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in article 26, includes the right to education and hence, implicitly (not explicitly), the prohibition of child labor since the two are incompatible. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, rather carefully in order not to frighten away developing countries who might otherwise not have accepted the treaty:

“Children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labour should be prohibited and punishable by law”.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the strongest legal language prohibiting illegal child labor but does not make child labor illegal.


The International Labor Organization estimates that 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work (or about 15% of the world’s children, about 35% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa).

They work in very different industries but mostly in commercial agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining, parents’ business and domestic service either at home or in other homes, in factories, sweatshops, fields, tourist attractions etc. Some children work in illicit activities like the drug trade and prostitution or as soldiers. Often their situation is aggravated by child slavery, child trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor.


In Western countries, child labor has gradually died out. It was common during the industrial revolution (and before) when children as young as four were employed in factories with dangerous working conditions, but labor laws, education laws and technological progress (and some say colonialism) have caused its disappearance.

From Unicef:

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the worldwide highest share of child labourers. In the 18 countries in this region with data on child labour, 38 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years of age are engaged in work that can be considered harmful to their development. Among these children, slightly more than half (20 percent of the total) also attend school while another 18 percent are only engaged in labour. Overall, 60 percent of all children between 7 and 14 years attend school. 21 percent of all children are neither in school nor do they engage in labour. These children may, however, perform work that is not considered labour, for example household work for less than 28 hours per week… [T]he share of child labourers among girls is the same as among boys, about 38 percent. On the other hand, the area of residence is strongly associated with child labour: rural children (43 percent) work much more than urban children (25 percent).


It’s often the poverty of their parents that forces millions of young children out of school and into work. But companies obviously also have an interest in hiring children. Children earn less, are less vocal defenders of their rights, are more easily forced to accept certain “work procedures” etc. For some professions, the anatomy of children also gives them an advantage compared to adults (mining for instance). Many companies, including Western multinationals, often find the temptation too hard to resist, and the consumers engage in moral complicity when purchasing products assembled or manufactured in developing countries with child labor. Consumer boycotts of such products, however, without compensating measures such as the provision of education for the children in question or benefits to poor families, may simply result in an even worse situation when children are forced into other labor activities, often more hazardous or detrimental.

A child may sometimes consent to work if, for example, the salary is relatively attractive, but such consent may not be informed consent. Child labor may still be an undesirable situation for a child in the long run.

Economic advantages of the abolition of child labor

Child labor undermines the general economy because it lowers general labor standards and wages for all workers (adult workers often suffer from unfair competition since they normally would be paid more and are generally more vocal about their labor conditions). It may have a short-term beneficial effect on a country’s international competitiveness because it allows countries to produce at lower costs and with fewer regulations, but internally in the country it affects the general labor standards and work force.