Child Laborers, the Other “Left-Behind” Children of Migration

The pervasiveness of child labor is linked to many country-level indicators, among them levels of economic and social development, government capacity, poverty, and public education[1]. Because of this, the impact of labor migration on rates of child labor has been a focus of researchers who are interested in how remittances might positively benefit receiving families. At the household level, a fairly large body of research (on countries like Nepal, Mexico, and Ghana) supports the argument that children in households receiving remittances from abroad tend to spend more time in school and less time working. The narrative is straight-forward: when a parent goes abroad and sends remittances home, household income increases and more funds are available for consumption and investment purposes. The family can afford for a child to not contribute to household income, and may even spend some of this additional income on long-term investments in children’s education. There are a few exceptions, but based on a large body of international research, a parent’s migration has a direct and generally negative effect on the time his or her child spends working.

But step beyond the household level, and things become less clear. While remittances tend to go directly toward household expenses and investing in children, large-scale labor migration has a mix of consequences far beyond individual families – including shifts in the local labor market that impact adult workers, businesses, and the non-migrant families. It is easy to assume that because remittances are linked with economic development, and economic development is associated with lower levels of child labor, the effect on children of non-migrants would be similar to that of migrants’ children. However, some of the economic shifts brought about by labor migration from developing countries have the potential to put the poorest children – those who are engaged in or vulnerable to trafficking and child labor – at risk of greater exploitation.

Growing economic inequality means non-migrants don’t reap the benefits of remittances and fall even further behind – and child labor seems like a more viable alternative.

While it’s true that much of the labor migration from developing countries is that of low-wage workers, it’s not usually the very poorest who have the option to go abroad for work. And contrary to theories of a “trickle-down theory” of migration, poor families who do not migrate- and in particular, those who are unable to do so due to lack of social capital, access to information, or other circumstances- don’t seem to get in on many benefits. Remittances are still largely spent on consumption and household-level investment like education, housing and health, meaning that the increased income tends to stay within families rather than contributing to larger-scale economic development and trade. In developing countries, labor migration appears to lead to growing inequality between the rich and poor rather than shared increase in wealth – a gap that continues to widen as remittances accumulate. Children of migrants are better educated, enabling them to be upwardly mobile and potentially acquire wealth, whereas the children of non-migrants have little education and will likely end up in the same economic situation as their parents. When migration as a livelihood strategy, and often a solution chosen out of desperation, is not an option, parents and sometimes children themselves turn to other strategies including child labor. If education has not been an option, or is seen as a luxury rather than a necessity, a working child is viewed as a viable, albeit undesirable, source of household income or debt repayment. A widening poverty gap brought about by large-scale outmigration leaves poor non-migrant families even further behind, and combined with shifts in the labor market, equally if not more likely to turn to continue a cycle of child labor.

Labor shortages, particularly in low-wage and hazardous industries, create demand for other labor sources.

Labor migration is very often driven in part by high unemployment, but this does not mean that all industries have an excess of labor. In fact, some migrants may have been able to find work in-country but were chronically underemployed, that is, earning wages far beyond the needs of their household or beyond their skill level. A skill mismatch in which those who are unemployed don’t have the skills or education to fill existing jobs, or social stigma against low-wage employment (often for good reasons, in the case of hazardous jobs like brickmaking) may contribute to a shortage. If an individual is employed in a hazardous low-wage industry and the opportunity to migrate arises, he or she has little economic incentive to stay. When large segments of the working-age population migrate abroad industries facing labor shortages during periods of low migration are face even bigger problems. This is particularly true in the wake of disasters, such as Nepal’s recent earthquake, which wipe out infrastructure and industry and lead families to urgently seek overseas employment.

When migration contributes to investment and entrepreneurship in the home country (especially among returnee migrants), the market growth resulting from a surge in capital can shock the economy and create sudden harmful labor shortages. Some studies suggest that this is only a short-term problem until an economy adjusts to the new level of growth, and therefore a surge in child labor may be temporary. Others suggest that when dual economies exist in a sending country, the traditional economy will see a surge in child labor along with migration while the technologically advanced will see a reduction.

Combine poor families and desperate employers, throw some equally desperate and enterprising labor recruiters in the mix, and you’ve got a perfect equation for child labor. Researchers have found that a “substitution effect” is observed when low-skilled workers emigrate, leading to shortages in the same low-wage and hazardous industries in which children are typically employed. These shortages are often used to justify dependence on child labor – in countries like China and Pakistan, children are thought of as “compensating” for labor shortages, and serving as an alternative for employers looking for cheaper labor. Child labor fills the gaps left by migrants, and because children constitute cheaper labor, employers see economic benefit in their employment (or more often, forced or bonded labor).

Outmigration raises wages for adults in the home country’s labor market, making children a cheaper and more desirable source of labor.

When many workers exit a labor market, the shift in supply and demand in the home country can result in changing wages for those who remain. Some researchers find that during instances of sudden and heavy outmigration, a “short-run labor shock” occurs in which workers’ wages tend to increase, as the remaining workers are in high demand. This could mean that non-migrant adults begin to earn more, and that their children in turn don’t have to earn – a positive “trickle-down” from the households of migrants. But this phenomenon could also incentivize poor families, who see higher wages as a chance for their child to earn more, to push children into the labor market. The shift could also contribute to a view among employers that children constitute a more viable workforce because they do not demand the same rising wages as the remaining adults. When employers also engage in trafficking and exploitation of child laborers, replacing adults with under aged workers becomes even more lucrative.

An easy argument against these points is that high rates of migration contribute to overall GDP and overall decreases in rates of child labor (see also here and here, although this in itself is likely not a linear relationship). If a nation’s GDP is growing, and the net number of children working is lower, then perhaps there’s no cause for concern. But GDP sometimes doesn’t reveal the real picture; it does not measure equality, nor does a net decrease in child labor indicate that children are better off on average. For labor migration to be truly productive, its economic gains would somehow have to uplift not just the working and middle classes but also the poorest. Real sustainable development promotes the protection, wellbeing and education of vulnerable children. If the children of non-migrants are at greater risk of suffering as a consequence of labor migration, regardless of how indirect, it can’t be considered an unequivocal good.

[1] Most scholars and international organizations assert that they are not opposed to children working (“child work”), and that some types of work can be positive. UNICEF and the Convention of Rights of a Child (CRC) define child labor as “work for which the child is too young,” or as that which interferes with a child’s right to education, freedom from exploitation, health or wellbeing. Specifications are made for the appropriate age at which a child can work in particular types of labor, with particular attention to the worst forms of labor.

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