Banning child labor seems like a given for any civilized economy, and even the United States—typically wary of international obligations—has supported global campaigns to tackle this low-hanging humanitarian fruit. But recent twists in international human-rights politics show that even a “childhood free from work” can be a controversial enterprise.
The Trump White House has already sought to dismantle restrictions on child labor and other abuses in foreign conflict-mineral industries. As part of a broader repeal of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, a recently leaked draft executive order would suspend an obscure provision to restrict international trade in minerals like tin and gold, which are trafficked in conflict zones by militia groups linked to massive human-rights abuses, including child labor. Rights groups protested the move, which protects mining multinationals, as a rollback of ongoing international efforts to regulate companies that indirectly profit from child labor and other abuses in Global South supply chains.
But imposing regulations against child labor has long been a slippery issue in humanitarian policy debates. Earlier this year, in a provocative letter to the Observer UK, a group of academics and NGO activists argued that setting age limits for workers might sometimes actually do more harm than good. The UN convention on banning child labor according to legal age limits (which broadly cites a “national legal minimum working age, which should be aligned with international standards”)—reflecting longstanding international labor standards and sustainable development goals—should be more flexible, to “specifically target work that is dangerous or damaging to children,” and to recognize that “age-appropriate safe work can be developmental for children of all ages.”