07/22/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

The Cost of Child Labor

This past spring's collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh, an incident that killed more than 1,100 workers, has put an international spotlight on the often hazardous conditions which many workers in developing countries confront on a daily basis. The episode has not only created momentum around improving the working conditions for tens of thousands of factory laborers, but it also has helped foster greater scrutiny around the use of children on the factory floor.

This renewed focus on child labor is long overdue. The exploitation of children in this way is a tragic reality, one which, according to new data, is woefully underappreciated by almost all Americans. UNICEF estimates that as many as 150 million children ages 5 to 14 work, with more than two in three employed in unsafe conditions. All too many of these children have simply lost their childhood, consigned to full days of tedious and dangerous work alongside their much older coworkers. Talk about lost innocence.

While this pervasive situation deserves our collective concern, it's also important to make some distinctions. That many children work is not in and of itself cause for alarm. We are less concerned, for example, about children who have after-school responsibilities on their family's farm or who work for limited hours at jobs that help supplement their family's income. But when those jobs are harmful or when they interfere with a child's education, then there is good reason to be troubled.

The unsafe conditions in factories such as the one in Bangladesh certainly meet that threshold for concern, and prominent retailers are becoming more active in monitoring the safety at the facilities where their clothes are made. The momentum toward greater oversight is one positive step, but those same retailers also can work do more to ensure that young children are not among the labor force.

And as consumers, we can do our part to make buying decisions that are consistent with our values. For example, would you continue to purchase a particular line of clothing knowing that it was made by child labor? ChildFund International recently commissioned a national poll of more than 1,000 Americans and asked that very question. The results: more than three in four respondents (77 percent) said they would no longer do so. That laudable sentiment should send a resounding message to manufacturers and retailers that they need not make economic choices over moral ones.

Along the same lines, the ChildFund poll also found that a majority (55 percent) of Americans would be willing to pay more for clothes not made using child labor. How much more? Of those who said they'd be willing to pay more, the average amount was over one-third (34 percent) more. In other words, they'd pay $67 for a shirt that had cost $50, knowing that children were not involved in its manufacture.

As comforting as these statistics are, I have to wonder if they would be even more dramatic if Americans had a better idea of the extent of the problem. When asked to estimate the total number of children involved in child labor around the world, only 1 percent of Americans said that it was at least 150 million, with three in four (74 percent) estimating that there were fewer than 1 million child laborers. And if most in the U.S. are unaware of the scope of the issue, it's likely they truly understand the depth of the exploitation and harm that children as young as five years old are being subjected to.

While retailers and manufacturers have the capacity to make sweeping changes to address this matter, ChildFund is working on a more personal level. In the Philippines, for example, we have joined with other organizations in a four-year program that works to reduce child labor by improving access to and stressing the importance of school. In other parts of the world, we are focused on ending the trafficking of children by working closely with community leaders and helping provide for families' needs so that they can keep their children in school.

Not long ago, I met a young boy in India - perhaps nine or 10 years old - who was working fulltime making bangles. Melting glass over an open flame, its hard work that takes a physical toll, and the boy's hands looked as worn and weathered as an old man's. His family had taken him out of school because they depended on the income that the bangle-making provided. But ChildFund was able to intervene. We helped provide resources to the family, but just as importantly, sensitized the boy's parents to understand that cutting short their son's education was limiting his future and consigning him to a life no better than theirs. He re-enrolled in school, though continued to work part-time before and after school. Still, it was a victory, and we need many more like it.

Removing children from harmful situations and returning them to school give children opportunities for better tomorrows. Even so, we also should not overlook another vital component of childhood that is so often consumed by child labor - the time for play. Play, we often point out, is the work of the child. Children learn so much from it, and eliminating it from their early years restricts their capacity to grow and reach their full potential. Play time is essential and is almost always the first casualty of child labor.

Reducing the incidence of exploitive child labor requires a focus on the dual ends of the economic equation: both the manufacturers and parents who are responsible for putting children in harmful work conditions and undermining their capacity to simply be children. As we continue to sensitize families about the long-term damage that child labor holds for their children, we as consumers can do more to insist on transparency and reform among those who are hiring these children in the first place.

Child labor is the consequence of an economic reality whose costs are way too high.

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