Two weeks ago I blogged about a Bloomberg story on the use of child labour in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso, and the purchase by Victoria’s Secret of the resulting cotton. I argued that while child labour is always bad, always regrettable, it isn’t on net always morally wrong. Victoria’s Secret isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, despite the fact that some of their cotton is, yes, the result of child labour. Burkina Faso is desperately poor, and persistent child labour is a sad reality there: poor families simply cannot afford a better life for their children. And both the children and their families would be worse off were it not for the livelihood provided by VS.
But a soft line in child labour doesn’t sit well with everyone. And so, last week, my Canadian Business colleague Samson Okalow took issue with my arguments and posted a response. The solution to child labour, Okalow argued, is not as complex as I’d made it out to be.
Okalow makes a number of good points, and his commentary is well worth reading. But I’m standing by my original argument, and I’ll make just two points by way of explanation.
The first has to do with the facts of the case. In my original posting, I questioned what the net impact would be of VS volunteering to pay more for cotton. Would the extra money improve the prospects of child labourers, or just draw more people into the business and drive prices (and wages) down? In his commentary, Okalow rightly presses me on the details. But the fact that neither Okalow nor I knows the answers to those questions is just the point: we should be cautious about prescribing medicine without understanding its side effects.
The second point has to do more straightforwardly with ethics, with what VS (and other companies in similar situations) is obligated to do.
Okalow rightly points out that the plight of Burkina Faso’s child labourers needn’t be quite so bleak. VS could certainly do more to help; in particular, the company could opt to pay even more than it already does for premium organic fair-trade cotton, and therefore to make a smaller profit. As Okalow rightly points out, maximizing profits isn’t the only option VS has. It’s also possible to settle for merely sufficient profits: there certainly are organizations set up to operate that way.
The problem, here, is that it confuses the good with the obligatory. Helping those in need is a good thing to do. If Victoria’s Secret opted to donate money to the poor of Burkina Faso, by over-paying for cotton, they might well deserve praise, just as you would if you donated money to a charity set up to aid the desperately poor. But so far I see no reason why VS, in particular, or their customers or shareholders, in particular, are obligated to do so. All of the above are certainly obligated not to make the lives of children in Burkina Faso any worse. That’s the moral baseline for business everywhere, the thing that underpins the very legitimacy of private enterprise. But that’s different from being obligated to help; an obligation to help doesn’t just spring out of thin air.
And remember, VS (and its customers and shareholders) are already doing more for the children of Burkina Faso than other companies (and their customers and shareholders) are. To criticize a company like VS for daring to help (by investing in) Burkina Faso, without helping as much as it could, is not just hypocritical but surely also counterproductive. After all, it would be simpler for VS simply to buy American cotton and avoid all this controversy. And that would certainly make plenty of “Buy American” zealots happy. But it would also make the children of one of the world’s most brutally-poor countries worse off.