Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Technology and Child Labour

Bibek Debroy, the economist, has made an interesting point in the Indian Express about child labor that should make NGOs, child labor activists and even the government take note. He states that in a societal problem like child labor, passing legislation is not going to solve the problem. Rather he argues that the induction of technology that makes child labor uneconomical will work better and argues that changes in society have rarely occurred because of legislation and activism though they may provide the ballast from which other more relevant techniques are launched. Introduce technology that makes using child labor an uneconomical proposition and over time it will wither away.

Debroy brings out other interesting facts. One that the United States, the supposed custodian of all that is moral in today’s world hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the seminal document on child rights. Also that when legislation was passed in the US Congress to ban child labor, it was struck down by the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the statute violated a child’s fundamental right to work. What eliminated child labor eventually in the United States was the Great Depression when so many industries shut down that plenty of adults became available for employment at discount prices driving children away from the market for good.

I find Debroy’s thoughts and his historical illustrations going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution revealing because they are quite out of the ordinary from a typical NGO perspective. Also, it possibly addresses the question that nobody has been quite able to answer – it is fine to ban child labor and insist on children going to schools, but in the typical poor family, the incentive to go to school isn’t there; what is there is the motivation to go to the market place and earn a living. But what if an environment were to be created where technological upgrades made it impossible for a child to be employable unless he first went to school and got some basic education? Would it work?

A Brazilian friend of mine shares his experience. Brazil is a country known for the sheer numbers of street children in its cities. It used to be that kids would drift into big cities like Sao Paolo, merge with street gangs, and do odd jobs along the way, typically as motor mechanics. That was then. But then as cars began to be more advanced in their technology and parts began to get computerized, car repairs required less and less crawling under the belly of a car and poking with a screw driver, and more and more knowledge of how to interpret and fix diagrams on a computer screen.

Eventually it came to the point that it was no longer possible to repair cars without basic school education and some understanding of computers. Kids began to drift into school and began getting educated not because they liked it or school had suddenly become exciting but because to remain employable they needed skills that could only come with education. The goal of education for every child became attainable not because of stringent legislation or strident NGO activism, but because going to school and getting an education became a necessity for sheer survival.

Over time as the profile of the child on the street changed to those of an educated lot, rehabilitation became easier as children taken off the streets had more options and choices than their predecessors and had lesser motivation to return back to the streets once they were resettled. Did economics dissolve the street kid and child labor phenomena in Brazil? Of course not. Did it make the job manageable and the problem containable? Certainly, yes. Will it work in India? Bibek Debroy says so and it is certainly worth a try.

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