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Child labour and the Western response: What is a responsible approach to child labour in the developing world?

In a globalized world, competition in production has enabled the global multi-nationals to take advantage of cheap labour and lower working standards in producing cheap commodities for the Western market. Attempts by workers competing for jobs in these markets have often forced highly exploitative conditions upon the workers, and at the bottom of the huge pool of available labour are children, who are often chosen deliberately over adults because they can be exploited more ruthlessness than the latter. What are the real circumstances confronting child workers and what is the effect of interference by those in the west genuinely trying to make conditions better for working children? This discussion examines the dangers and offers an approach that will assist in coming to grips with the reality of work that many children in developing countries face.

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Child labour and the Western response

Child labour became a major international issue in the last two decades, as globalization of world labour and markets have reshaped the world economy. Images of children chained to looms have informed the perception of child labour in the West ever since, but how accurately do they reflect reality? Child labour cannot be seen in isolation nor dealt with as a single issue. It can be as benign as tending the family herd of goats or as horrible as fighting as frontline troops.

Most people draw a clear line between child work and child exploitation. Obviously, a child whose work causes them suffering needs help, but those of us in the West must be very careful about our response. Very often, our 'helping' becomes meddling that only makes things worse for the children and their families. Yet, to do nothing is surely a dereliction of responsibility towards those whose fundamental human rights we claim to uphold, especially as it is the western market which drives the exploitation of children's work.

We owe it to working children to try to really come to grips with the reasons why they are working and what the consequences for that child might be if we interfere. As an illustration, several years ago, girls of about eleven years of age were identified as employees in a carpet factory in Nepal, working 14-16 hour ...

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