Cheap Labour = Child Labour (Part 1)

by Dr Rohail Ahmad

In this article Rohail Ahmad presents the findings of his research into child labour. This will be followed by annotated excerpts from Rohail’s novel, Pure Mafia, a unique literary thriller about child labour.

The film 12 Years A Slave depicts the horrors of slavery and its aftermath in the US in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only was this period of slave labour one of the most brutal, it was also a major contributor to the origins of current East/West geo-social disparities. Among other things, Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), has argued that the profits from slavery led to the setting up of the British banking system, which in turn partly financed the British Industrial Revolution.

Some critics contend that the profits of slavery “only” accounted for “below 5 per cent of British income in an early year in the Industrial Revolution”, but this is a significant figure. Today it would amount to about £100b – 2.5 times the UK defence budget. This economic basis of an East/West imbalance was also further extended and reinforced through colonialism, initiating the first stages of an international division of labour, which was crucial in consolidating economic exploitation. The British Industrial Revolution first gave rise to the modern notion of child labour, but the profits arising from it eventually allowed the “exporting” of child labour – essentially a form of slavery – to the colonies.

The economist Kaushik Basu has suggested that child labour did not end naturally in the West but rather that it was exported to the East. Research evidence to support this claim comes from a number of sources: first, from tracing the chain of events that led to the accumulation of capital in the West; second, by comparing the testimonies of child labourers in the British Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) and in contemporary Pakistan; and third, by comparing the rates of child labour and of population growth in East and West at key historical moments.

The first – the accumulation of capital from slavery and colonialism – I have outlined above. The second, relating to the comparison of child testimonies across continents, shows uncanny similarities, despite being two centuries apart. The following quotes (just a few of many) are taken from Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2010) by Jane Humphries, and Child Labour in Carpet Weaving Industry In Punjab (1992), a Pakistani research document,

Britain (1750-1850):

“At nine years of age I was taken from school and put to work in the fields” (p.173)

“When I was six years […] old I was sent off to work […] Fancy that! I do not think I shall ever forget those long and hungry days in the fields.” (p.173)

Pakistan (present day):

“Nazir is 11 years old. He works from 6am to 6pm. Nazir used to go to school till he was eight. Then his father got into debt and he was withdrawn from school.” (pp.19-20)

“Arshad started weaving carpets at the age of six […] Arshad is fascinated by school going children. He says he becomes sad when he sees these children going to school […] in school uniforms, while he has to […] sit on the hard wooden board and do knotting all day.” (pp.19-20)

Notice the similarities between children being taken out of school to work and the harsh conditions of manual labour.

There is also the visual evidence. The images on the left are from the British Industrial Revolution, the pictures on the right from contemporary Pakistan. The two boys could almost be brothers: the pose, the intense look, the unruly hair. The little boy in the upper right quadrant is Iqbal Masih, who was killed in 1995 at the age of 12 for speaking out about child labour by the “carpet mafia” – the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association. His story is told in a children’s novel, Iqbal (2004), by Francesco D’Adamo. The stories of boys like the one to his left (identity unknown) are told most famously by Charles Dickens, himself a child labourer, particularly in Oliver Twist (1838). The two photographs at the bottom show the shift in time and space of similar jobs, although the comportment of the children is again similar.

Now for the third strand – rates of child labour and population growth. The following graphs show mirror images of the growth in carpet manufacturing in Pakistan, which is notorious for using child labour, as UK manufacturing employment reduces. These graphs are from 1972 and 1978 onwards, respectively, when the second major stage of the international division of labour occurred, as manufacturing was outsourced to the East.

The next graph shows population diversion from around 1950 onwards. This can be understood by assuming that as education in the West (in this case specifically Britain) became established and compulsory between 1870 (Elementary Education Act) and 1936 (the 1936 Education Act, which raised the school leaving age to fifteen), the need for child labour reduced. About a generation later we start to see population divergence.


As much as people in the West are horrified by child labour, cheap labour is taken for granted when it is in the form of low-cost consumer goods such as clothes. Yet child labour and cheap labour are inextricably linked and the first follows from the second. The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that cheap labour does not yield comparative economic advantage, as is the current wisdom, but it is the worst disadvantage possible. It is essentially a modern form of slavery, and one that leads inevitably to child labour:

The most important reason for the existence of child labor in developing countries is poverty. Even (most) poor parents do not send their children to work if they can prevent it. Indeed, Kaushik Basu argues that in the situations in which child labor occurs as a mass phenomenon, the alternative to child labor is usually very harsh—acute hunger or even starvation.

The following quote reinforces the present argument through its internal contradiction, showing the entanglements of cheap/child labour,

Busse […] provides evidence that countries with higher incidence of child labor have a comparative advantage in the export of unskilled labor-intensive manufactured products.

Apart from the academic evidence, there are of course moral issues to consider in how the exploitation of cheap labour in the East and the poverty that it is based upon are normalised, or at least are obscured in the West. The romanticisation of poverty and the cheap labour it engenders can be found in what some critics call the ‘poverty pornography’ of films such as Salaam Bombay (1988), the ironically entitled City of Joy (1992) and, more recently, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). It takes catastrophes such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, caused by inadequately resourced and enforced safety regulations, to remind us exactly what lies behind the bargains that we snap up in some of our chain stores and also in more up-market brands.

The allure of cheap goods can also lie behind some of our global excursions. Western tourists delight in how cheap things are in the East: “a pound in the Congo is worth more than a pound in the UK”. This is not true. A pound is worth the same everywhere. See chapter ten of 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism (2011) by Ha-Joon Chang. Cheapness is reflective of a subsistence standard of living: when we buy an item in the East we are paying for subsistence – food and rudimentary shelter – but no health, education, pension, or any goods that would help people to thrive rather than survive.

There is also the ‘humanitarianism façade’ to consider, as highlighted in The Exploited Child (2010), collection of essays edited by Bernard Schlemmer,

Beneath a humanitarian facade […] lurks a power that is prepared to go to any lengths to thwart the least action threatening to disturb this vast one-way flow of money […] Anyone trying to tackle child labour [… crosses] a minefield full of danger […] violent assaults and even murders; such is the fate reserved for the activists and organisations committed to fighting for the rights of child workers. (p.188)

These are not mere words, as already mentioned Iqbal Masih, the child shown above, was reputedly killed by the Pakistani “carpet mafia”, for speaking out about child labour. Is the Western position naive or profoundly hypocritical? The evidence suggests the latter,

Pogge argues that the foreign policy of Western societies, and especially their policies that shaped international institutions like the WTO, generates poverty in developing countries […] Formulated in less diplomatic language: it is gratuitous for Western governments to want to fight child labor without accepting their own responsibilities to reduce poverty.

Here is further evidence:

Critics also argue that foreign investors not only seek countries with child labor incidence, but actively promote child labour.

For any system of force to work, collusion is required. How does Pakistan collude with child labour?

The following extracts are from an article in The Atlantic and show how the Pakistani authorities pay lip service but do nothing. Indeed they look the other way,

“We prefer to leave enforcement to the discretion of the police,” says a Ministry of Labor official. “They understand best the needs of their community. Law is not an absolute. We must expect a certain flexibility on the part of those who enforce it. Could this sometimes mean looking the other way? Absolutely.”


“There’s little doubt that inexpensive child labor has fuelled Pakistan’s economic growth. Entire industries have relocated to Pakistan because of the abundance of cheap child labor and our lax labor laws. […] We are discovering more and more factories that have been redesigned and retooled so that only children can work there.”


“There is room for improvement in any society,” the industrialist Imram Malik says. “But we feel that the present situation is acceptable the way it is. The National Assembly must not rush through reforms without first evaluating their impact on productivity and sales. Our position is that the government must avoid so-called humanitarian measures that harm our competitive advantages.”

Because the rich and powerful of Pakistan and other poor countries are highly mobile, they are able to travel to the West for health, education and leisure. There is little incentive to improve their own countries.

Child labour shows no significant signs of abating, despite Western policies speciously designed to curb it. This is due to unfair and rigged general policies such as the free flow of capital and goods, but not labour – worse still, selective migration; there is also the international division of labour, already mentioned. The most practical solution is an international minimum wage, which would have to be enforced upon Western companies by Western laws to be effective. Muhammad Younus, the Bangladeshi Nobel prize-winning economist, has recently called for something similar. To go alongside this, we would also need prosecution of Western companies using child labour abroad. For those who argue that this is impractical, we have the example of the law that allows prosecution of people who use child prostitution abroad. Why not for child labour? It is practical – only the will is lacking.

Click here to read a fully referenced version of my research, Cheap Labour = Child Labour.

Read Part Two: Cheap Labour = Child Labour (Part 2)

has a PhD (2013) and an MA (2010, Distinction) in Creative Writing from Brunel University, where he also teaches. His MA novella, The Dancing Girl of Lahore, jointly won the Curtis Brown Prize at Brunel and was also longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize. One of his MA stories was shortlisted for an anthology of British-Asian fiction by Tindal Street Press (Too Asian, Not Asian Enough). Excerpts of his PhD work have been published on the MD website, as well as other places. His PhD novel, Pure Mafia, is a unique literary thriller about child labour and the Pakistani “carpet mafia”; it was described by the supervisor as “complex and ambitious, East and West”, and by the examiners as “enjoyable, provocative, original and fluent”. His PhD thesis was about globalisation, focusing on cheap/child labour.
Twitter @HaveYou_Read_It  Find out more at Have You Read It


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1 reply

  1. This is a brilliant and informative piece. Child labour was indeed transported to the former colonies. Advances in human psychology during the late 18th and early 19th century led to newer, more sustained forms of control and exploitation. In terms of children, one such example is the insidious borstal system, which was established on concepts of “controlling bodies”, and eventually became the forerunner to contemporary Western institutions, like education, prisons and manufacturing factories. Foucault has done excellent research in this regard.

    Also, the shift to child labour coincided with the unequivocally pivotal fallout of the glorious Haitian Revolution. European Imperialists cunningly decided to pay a pittance to (mainly Indian) colonial subjects for their labour and obedience, rather than continue to battle against hundreds of African insurrections across the Americas. It was Imperialist pragmatism that led to the rise of organised child labour, the industrial revolution, and the shift away from “importing” and enslaving Africans by the tens of millions.

    Britain became an abolitionst nation because they turned to cheap Indian labour. Pushing for abolition ruined the other slave trading nations of Europe who didn’t have an alternative source of revenue. Contemporary attempts to “down play” the profitability of the trade in humans are laughable and pathetic. They are also disingenuous.

    Tracing capitalist development from 1492 to modernity is an important endeavour, as the phenomena we know as globalisation was premised on centuries of enslavement and exploitation. The plight of child labours around the world today, digging for natural resources, making clothing, and acting as cogs for other industries, is the a tangible example of the legacy of TransAtlantic slavery. The sooner we all acknowledge the true history behind our interconnected, capitalist modern world, the better.


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